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Senators question Uber and Lyft on human trafficking risks

Senators cited Uber’s new teen program as a cause for concern.
Lyft Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. signage are displayed on the windshield of a vehicle at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles
Lyft Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. signage are displayed on the windshield of a vehicle at Los Angeles International Airport on Sept. 11, 2019. Allison Zaucha / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft are being scrutinized by senators of both parties over how they are fighting human trafficking, which lawmakers say may be happening on their services. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. and Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga. sent two separate letters Monday to the CEOs of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi, and Lyft, David Risher, demanding transparency over the companies’ efforts to prevent human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a crime involving the exploitation of a person for labor, services or commercial sex, as defined by the Department of Justice. Uber and Lyft both say they provide free rides to human trafficking victims, train drivers on how to spot trafficking and have partnered with organizations like Polaris, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, to raise awareness on the issue, according to Uber and Lyft

The lawmakers are asking Uber and Lyft to answer a series of questions, such as how drivers are trained to spot human trafficking, and requesting records of reported child sex trafficking incidents on their services.  

Uber will respond to the senators by the letter’s June 26 deadline, an Uber spokesperson told NBC News. “Uber is deeply committed to helping combat the horrific impact of human trafficking on communities,” the statement said. 

Lyft told NBC News it also intends to respond to the letter, with a spokesperson saying, “We take this issue very seriously and work closely with law enforcement when appropriate.”

In their letters, senators focused on child safety.

Lyft does not permit unaccompanied minors in its vehicles but minors can still ride with adult passengers. 

The senators specifically noted Uber’s recent move to allow teens to use the app as a cause for concern.

Uber followed a similar policy to Lyft’s until on May 22 it allowed teen accounts, a feature for minors between 13 and 17 years of age, in select cities in the U.S. and Canada. Parents and guardians can invite teens to set up an account linked to their Family profile and then teens can request and ride an Uber alone. 

Teen accounts on Uber have safety features that cannot be turned off by the user, such as live tracking and RideCheck, an emergency response technology. “Parental supervision and key safety features are built into each trip, including PIN verification, live trip tracking for parents, and access to Uber’s Safety Line,” Uber’s spokesperson said. 

The senators said Uber’s teen account option could put minors at risk of child trafficking. “Given the reported prevalence of ride-hailing apps in sex trafficking, however, we are extremely concerned about the impact this change could have on the trafficking of minors,” they wrote in the letter. 

Both letters cited various reports, including an academic paper and a Polaris survey of trafficking survivors, indicating ride-hailing apps were used in human trafficking. The academic paper found that ride-sharing and taxis, grouped together, were the second most used mode of transportation for human trafficking in California. The most common mode was private vehicles, including rentals. 

In Polaris’ 2018 survey of 104 trafficking survivors, 9% of victims or traffickers used ride-hailing services during their exploitation, the third lowest among transportation modes. The most common means of transportation was the trafficker’s vehicle. 

Public data on child trafficking through ride-hailing services is limited, and it’s not entirely clear how or if ride-hailing apps have influenced the prevalence of human trafficking.

“Due to its clandestine nature and the lack of uniform and disaggregated data, making accurate calculations on the scale of commercial sexual exploitation of children, child trafficking and adult trafficking can be difficult and misleading,” said EPCAT-USA, an anti-trafficking organization, on its website

There’s been reported cases of child trafficking attempts using rideshare services. The FBI warned, in a public service announcement in October 2022, that individuals could be using rideshare services to abduct minors. The FBI mentioned three separate cases between 2021 and 2022 where rideshare drivers were arrested for allegedly attempting to abduct minors during a rideshare trip. 

Last year, New Jersey authorities arrested a man who they said transported a minor from Indiana to New Jersey with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. The man allegedly “paid and arranged for an Uber driver to pick up the minor and transport her across state lines to him,” according to the court documents cited by the U.S. attorney’s office in the southern district of Indiana.