Credit: Mark Warner

How Uber turned 5,827 assault 'complaints' into just five

A whistleblower reveals a huge number of customer service tickets that appear to refer to attacks, but Uber says there's a perfectly good explanation.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 04 Apr 2016

If you’re running a focus group to figure out which words customers associate with your brand, just about the last one you want to see on the whiteboard next to your name is ‘rape’. Ridesharing giant Uber is particularly vulnerable to this, having seen numerous high profile allegations against its drivers across the world.

The firm’s comms team will be reeling therefore from recent revelations that a search of its customer service database returned 5,287 tickets including the word ‘rape’, and a further 6,160 tickets when searching for the words ‘sexual assault’. This came to light after an as yet anonymous ex-employee sent screenshots to BuzzFeed News, which the site says has resulted in a ‘hunt’ for the whistleblower.

Uber was quick to call the results ‘highly misleading’,  saying that in fact only five tickets alleged an actual rape had occurred between December 2012 and August 2015 (or 0.0000009% of rides), and only 170 contained a legitimate claim of sexual assault.

Among the explanations offered by Uber for the rather significant disparity were that riders routinely misspelled the word ‘rate’ or use it in a different context (e.g. ‘you raped my wallet’), that some tickets related to alleged attacks on other ride sharing platforms and that any ‘names that contains the letters ‘R, A, P, E’ consecutively (for example, Don Draper) are included'.

Those may sound like rather flimsy excuses, but Uber in fact makes a very valid point about the nature of search. Try Googling ‘Uber rape’ and you get over five million hits, but no one’s alleging there were five million attacks. Unfortunately for Uber, in this case the best explanation just doesn’t sound very convincing.  

Uber’s response about its general attitude toward security has the same problem. It spoke about the paramount importance of getting people from A to B safely and about what it does to make that happen – employing a dedicated safety team, conducting ‘robust’ background checks, and deploying advanced real-time tracking technology. But the crux was its admission that although ‘even one incident is too many... sadly no means of transportation is 100% safe’.

That’s a perfectly grown up response, and entirely true. Any service that results in millions of customers and employees (or users and contractors) being alone together will inevitably see some crimes take place. This goes for taxis, electricians or therapists as much as Uber rides, but in any case no organisation can completely stop it, no matter how hard it tries.

But is it what users want to hear? Will they even listen, when they’re hearing the words ‘Uber’ and ‘rape’ next to each other? Sometimes there’s only so much a company can do to protect its reputation - when terrible crimes such as rapes have occurred or are even alleged, no business can come out well, even if it’s done everything right.  


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