Since ride-hail services began operating across the country last decade, sexual assault has been a persistent problem, one that state regulators have sought to reduce with thorough background checks, while companies have added emergency 911 buttons and other safety features.
But the recent case of a man charged in Boston with kidnapping and raping an Uber customer highlights a less widely understood danger: Ride-hailing is vulnerable to imposter drivers, and sexual assailants and other violent criminals have shown they can exploit the system.
“We now have a new mechanism for people who, at the point they would do something like this, have the ability to do it,” said Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. “These folks would find a way with any sort of societal vulnerability.”
Early this month, Suffolk County prosecutors accused Alvin R. Campbell Jr. of posing as an Uber driver and picking up a woman outside of a bar near North Station, where she had been drinking at a holiday party. Before midnight, the woman had called for an Uber, but the assigned driver canceled the pickup, according to police. Minutes later, the victim told police, Campbell allegedly pulled to the curb and identified her by name. She got in the car, and, police said, Campbell drove her to a home in Rhode Island and raped her.
Prosecutors said they are investigating Campbell in two other sexual assaults in Massachusetts, based on DNA evidence from the case. He pleaded not guilty and was ordered held on $250,000 bail. Campbell is the brother of Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who has said her thoughts are with the victim.
Regulators at the Department of Public Utilities say Campbell applied for and was denied a permit to be a ride-hail driver in 2017. Uber said he was not approved for the platform.
Many details of the case remain unclear. For example, how would Campbell have allegedly known the woman’s name? Boston police said the real Uber driver who canceled the victim’s ride picked up another passenger shortly thereafter. Citing an “active investigation,” Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s office declined to provide additional details.
In discussing the Campbell case, Rollins said she took particular interest in sexual violence related to ride-hailing “and sex crimes that are overwhelmingly perpetrated against women,” adding that her office would focus on messaging and education.
“We are not going to victim-blame,” she said. “We are going to be teaching very vocally our overwhelmingly young men about consent. We’re going to be talking to people about being safe when you are drinking and when you are out.”
There have been other cases of imposters picking up riders at airports or outside of bars, though there is no definitive number. The Transportation Alliance, a taxi industry group that has criticized Uber and Lyft as unsafe, said that it documented almost 50 US cases from 2017 to mid-2018, and that there have been more since.
In 2019, a South Carolina college student was found murdered after she got in a car she mistakenly thought was her Uber ride, police said, although they do not believe the suspect was pretending to be a driver.
In some cases, non-permitted drivers have found ways to access the Uber app to pick up rides by using an authorized driver’s account. London officials in 2019 stripped Uber of its license after saying they had identified 14,000 instances of imposters using others’ accounts, though Uber is still operating in the city as it appeals the order.
Sharing accounts is already illegal in Massachusetts. Last year, Governor Charlie Baker filed legislation that would impose stiffer penalties. It is unclear how common the practice is in Massachusetts, but officials point to a 2019 incident at Logan Airport, when police stopped a driver with a violent criminal history who was using somebody else’s account.
Baker’s bill would also add more penalties for drivers who do not put ride-hail companies’ decals on their windshields or don’t carry paper copies showing they passed their state-run background check.
“The administration hopes the Legislature will take up the legislation soon,” said Baker spokesman Terry MacCormack.
Baker’s legislation received a hearing at the State House earlier this month, and Representative William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who oversees transportation initiatives in the House, said the proposed rules could be adopted on their own or included in a broader transportation funding plan expected to be debated later this winter.
Massachusetts has one of the most intensive ride-hail background checks in the country, with a state-run review that overlaps the company background check. Since Uber and Lyft came under state law, officials have denied licenses to nearly 38,000 would-be drivers, or about 14 percent of all applicants — including more than 50 sex offenders whom Uber and Lyft failed to catch when the rules went into place in 2017.
But background checks do not prevent people from pretending to be drivers.
Experts say the best way to guard against a fake driver is to rely on features within the apps, which display the make of the vehicle and the license plate number to the rider, as well as the driver’s name and picture.
Uber noted that it recently added a feature aimed specifically at this problem: Riders can now get a four-digit PIN code that they tell the driver, who must enter the number into the app before the ride can begin.
Lyft, meanwhile, said it provides drivers with a dashboard mount with electric lighting that changes colors. Riders are shown the color in the app that matches the dashboard mount in their assigned pickup, and the back of the mount displays the name of the rider as a greeting. However, Lyft gives the dashboard mount only to drivers who complete a high number of trips, and have high ratings from customers. The feature is also not available in all service areas.
Boston police declined to comment, but noted the department’s nightlife safety guidelines, which suggest that passengers order rides while inside a restaurant to limit time spent outdoors, and not accept rides from anyone who does not match information in the app.
But a former Boston police commissioner, William Evans, said the late-night bar scene can be chaotic, with dozens of people waiting for rides, many of them drunk.
“If you’ve had a couple, and you’re not about your right wits, you’re not going to read the plates as well. You’d be very susceptible to jumping in the wrong car with a wrong driver,” Evans said.
As commissioner, Evans called for tighter regulation of ride-hailing. He left the position in 2018 to become chief of police at Boston College, where he regularly warns students to be safe if they take Uber or Lyft. He suggested that the authorities conduct regular inspections of ride-hail drivers at popular locations to ensure people’s identities.
Scaramella, at the rape crisis center, stressed that the problem mostly reflects a broader societal failure to stem sexual assault. However, she suggested another idea: Bars could have staff make sure that customers get into the right cars. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association did not seem eager to endorse that idea. Bob Luz, its president, said restaurants consider safety a priority “inside our four walls.”
Meanwhile, the taxi industry has noted that taxis are more easily identifiable than the vehicles used by their ride-hailing competitors.
John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed. Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@