Who's your rideshare driver? I-Team investigates passenger safety

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Rideshare companies are making a lot of money, but they are not doing as much to check out their drivers as the taxi industry does.

"I can find out more about an Amazon seller than I can about the Uber driver I'm about to get in a car with. I don't know why that is," personal injury attorney Meghan McCormick tells the I-Team.

Ridesharing services are more popular than ever, but are they doing enough to check out their drivers and protect passengers?

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One woman who did the right thing and decided to not get behind the wheel after a night out with friends in Seattle ordered a Lyft. But at 2:45 in the morning, her driver followed her up to her door, grabbing at her, grabbing himself in an obscene way.

After a long two minutes, he smacks her behind and leaves; she gets safely inside. The next morning, her boyfriend checked the security camera and found that the Lyft driver returned a half hour later, tested the windows, the door handle, and knocked.

"The part that I think kind of freaks me out the most is the fact that he knows where I live," the passenger told the I-Team's Dan Noyes. She asked to remain anonymous, but she wanted you to know her story; the Lyft driver was convicted last September of assault with sexual motivation for the incident.

"An app that basically puts women in predators' cars."

"I wouldn't give my address out to a random person on a street," said the passenger. "It's important for people like this to have background checks or safety audits."

Serious complaints about some rideshare drivers are coming from customers across the country and the Bay Area.

Tuesday morning, Orlando Vilchez Lazo is scheduled to appear in San Francisco Superior Court again. Prosecutors call him the "rideshare rapist" for attacks on four women over five years; he says he's not guilty.

ICE reports Lazo is in the country illegally. Lyft says he "fraudulently represented himself" when signing up to be a driver, and removed him when the allegations became public.

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Uber suspended driver Brandon Sherman for misconduct just a day before he sexually assaulted a woman in San Mateo County last August, according to police. They also say he still drove for Lyft, but police tell us he picked up the passenger off the street, not from an app.

"And at the time of the incident, his vehicle did have affixed to the window both Lyft and Uber stickers," said San Mateo Police Lt. Ryan Monaghan.

Also this past summer, Uber driver Westagne Pierre was convicted of raping a female passenger he had picked up at a restaurant. Surveillance video showed him carrying the woman from the back of his car into a Maryland motel. The victim called police after the attack.

Dispatcher: "Do you have an emergency, ma'am?"

Passenger: "I don't know how I woke up here."

Uber tells us, "This was a deplorable crime that nobody should ever have to go through. ... We've worked closely with police to support their investigation."

Attorney Meghan McCormick told us, "Here we have an app that basically puts women in predators' cars."

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The I-Team met McCormick and Rachel Abrams at their office on San Francisco's Embarcadero where they're working dozens of rideshare assault cases. They say Uber and Lyft have to do a better job checking out their drivers. As it stands right now, the rideshares rely on the DMV and a third-party background check company.

A Lyft video promotional video says, "How do you screen the drivers? With two different background checks."

There is no face-to-face meeting, no drug test, no fingerprint with federal background check through LiveScan.

"These companies don't require to even talk on the phone, let alone a face-to-face interview," said Abrams.

"And I think also with the fingerprinting, there's a sense of accountability," added McCormick. "If you're a driver you know your fingerprint is on file and that matters."

That's what happens at taxi companies like San Francisco's Flywheel: fingerprints, drug tests, close supervision, cameras in all cars that feed the cloud so managers can see what's happening. Safety Manager Corey Lamb tells us no Flywheel driver has assaulted a passenger in the past year.

Corey Lamb: "Not one."

Dan Noyes: "How about last two years?"

Corey Lamb: "Not one."

Dan Noyes: "Five years?"

Corey Lamb: "Not one."

Dan Noyes: "10 years?"

Corey Lamb: "Not one. I've been here 13 and drivers never assaulted a passenger."

A Lyft spokesperson said he would get back to us on our request for an interview and questions about passenger safety. He has not.

Uber declined an on-camera interview, but emailed, "There is nothing more important that the safety of the riders and drivers we serve. That's why we've doubled down on safety over the last 18 months, strengthening US background checks, launching new safety features, changing our arbitration policies, and committing to a first-of-its-kind transparency report. These new investments build on our existing safety features such as the GPS tracking of your trip, 24/7 customer support, and 2-way feedback so we can investigate any issues and address them. In addition, Uber conducts robust criminal and driving record screenings on millions of drivers. While no background check is perfect, our process is thorough, fair, and conducted in accordance with state law."

They say they'll release a first-of-its-kind "transparency report" detailing the number of sexual assaults, sometime this year. Attorneys suing the rideshare companies say one big improvement would be allowing women to choose a female driver, even if it meant waiting a little longer.

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