May 5, 2016 · 4 minutes

It can be hard to spot an Uber driver in a rolling sea of Priuses, SUVs, and town cars.

Uber tries to make it easier by showing users the vehicle’s license plate and a picture of the person trying to earn a living before they’re replaced by self-driving vehicles. (“Kala-nixed,” if you will.)

But that mechanism breaks down when a driver uses a stock photo of a businessman holding onto an orb-shaped jumble of words like “excellent” and “teamwork,”  which is what happened when Colin Heilbut, a Canadian who visited Miami on vacation in late April, hailed an Uber driver.

This poses a few problems, the largest of which being that you now have a tourist getting into a car with a complete stranger without even the guarantee that the person driving him was vetted by Uber. Someone else could easily have used that same account. If that were the case, Uber would have no idea who is driving its customers, which makes it kinda hard to guarantee that those riders have even a modicum of safety. Hell, at least when Uber has a photo of someone’s face they’re able to share the photo with police, so the proper authorities can investigate crimes.

The driver said his name was the same as the one that appeared in the app -- Brian -- but Heilbut didn’t press him about why he didn’t use a picture of himself in his Uber profile. “I didn't ask the driver about this for two reasons. Firstly, the Miami-based driver spoke zero English. Not even ‘hello’ or understanding simple requests like ‘stop here,’” he said. “Secondly, I was worried that even if I was able to communicate my concern by pointing at the photo, the driver might feel threatened if his fraudulent actions were exposed and so I was unsure how he might react.”

Yeah, I wouldn’t question a potential fraudster while I was in their giant death machine, either.

The drive turned out fine. Heilbut got to his destination, got in touch with Uber, and received a refund for the cost of his trip. An Uber spokesperson sent me the following statement in response:

Drivers are required to upload clearly identifiable photos of themselves and we use manual reviews, automated systems, and the feedback of riders to ensure the photos match the ones we have on file. In the rare situation where a photo is not suitable, we will disable the driver's access to Uber until a new photo is approved, per our driver deactivation policy.

Another statement was offered in a Reddit thread Heilbut created to discuss the issue:

Dima from Uber here, I'm a product manager on our Safety team. We can confirm that it was the correct – pre-screened – driver-partner driving on this trip. However the image supplied was approved in error. This partner can’t currently drive on the app until a new picture is approved. This is a one off issue and a case of human error. We're deeply committed to the safety of the riders and drivers using our service, which is why we are constantly developing and testing new solutions to predict, prevent and reduce safety risks. In some cities we’re currently piloting new technology to help ensure the driver-partner using the app matches the account we have on file - Thank you to /u/pain_perdu for bringing this to our attention.

But that doesn’t answer any of my questions about how often this occurs -- surely this is not really a “one off issue” -- or when the increased safety features described in the New York Daily News article will roll out to all cities. The feature periodically asks drivers to take “clear, well-lit selfies” that are compared to their profiles to ensure that the right person is driving people around. That’s great!  Yet we have no idea when it will be available or how well it actually works. (I asked these questions of the Uber spokesperson who responded to my original email and got no response.)

And these aren’t theoretical issues. People are hurt seemingly every month by people who pretend to be Uber drivers. Here are three incidents from just the last month, as previously gathered for our monthly series about (sometimes alleged) crimes involving ridesharing:

In Chicago, a couple was robbed by a man posing as an Uber driver who pulled a knife on them. In Los Angeles, a man pretended to be an Uber driver to pick up a young woman, who he repeatedly choked to unconsciousness and sexually assaulted before he was found by police. Finally, a Washington man who pimped out a 17-year-old runaway girl from Portland, Oregon initially told police officers he was merely an Uber driver giving her a ride.

There are many other examples of the dangers posed by impostor ridesharing drivers. The whole service is built on people getting into private vehicles driven by strangers. If they can’t even trust that Uber knows who these drivers are -- and using a stock photo, or a photo of someone else, makes that difficult -- that system crumbles.

At least Uber’s addressing the problem… eventually. That’s your “Safety Fee” hard at work, folks!