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Tech Forecast

The Truth About Uber's Background Checks

Uber is getting flack for its background checks—but at least it's doing them, unlike many other corners of the sharing economy.

[Photo: Flickr user Matthias Ripp]

Last week, the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles said that Uber had failed to detect the criminal records of 25 drivers it had hired in the two cities.

The assertion was part of a civil suit that claims Uber has misled consumers by advertising "industry-leading" driver screening practices. Taxi licensing commissions typically use a background-check service called Live Scan, which takes drivers' fingerprints, whereas Uber uses services provided by the companies Accurate and/or Checkr.

Fingerprints allow a background-check service to access the FBI's criminal record database. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón has said that a background check without fingerprints is "completely worthless." Checkr says its methods are just as good. "People have this misconception that the FBI’s database is the gold standard," the company's head of compliance and government relations, Bon Idziak, tells Fast Company.

Regardless of whether it’s the best possible background check (others have covered this ongoing debate in more detail), what is clear is that Uber is doing a background check. Here is how Uber describes the process:

They run a social security trace to identify addresses associated with the potential driver’s name during the past seven years, and then a criminal background check to search for his or her name and addresses in a series of national, state and local databases for convictions in the last seven years. These include the National Sex Offender Registry, National Criminal Search and several different databases used to flag suspected terrorists. Upon identifying a potential criminal record, the background check provider sends someone to review the record in-person at the relevant courthouse or, if possible, pulls the record digitally.

Airbnb and other sharing economy services, meanwhile, often have no background checks at all, instead relying on social profiles, identity verification, and peer review to foster trust between users. "We strive to provide our hosts and guests with the right tools to make informed decisions regarding who they interact with on the site and in the real world," Airbnb writes in its FAQ section, citing user reviews, and an insurance policy that covers damage to hosts.

Similarly, in order to sign up as a dog sitter on DogVacay, a service that has billed itself as "Airbnb for dogs," you'll need to confirm your email address but not submit to a background check.

Renting your neighbor's car does not require a background check, either. Getaround will check your DMV records and verify your identity, and RelayRides will confirm your phone number, verify your identity, and run your information through antifraud detection. "Renter profiles and reviews from other owners let you make informed decisions before confirming a trip," it says on its website.

Not even babysitting marketplaces require background checks (though they typically allow babysitters to opt in, at an additional cost; Urbansitter and Care.com both use one of the same companies that Uber does).

Even though they are very rare scary anecdotes—like an Airbnb user who says he was sexually assaulted by a host—are bad for business. So why don't more companies add background checks to their platforms to give users peace of mind?

One prohibiting factor is that background checks are expensive—the processing fees for the fingerprint version in California, for instance, are between $25 and $42 a pop (in many cases, there's also a $15 to $17 fee for federal records)—and they slow down the onboarding process, which is not what you want to do if you're building a marketplace. Because a platform like Airbnb doesn’t necessarily fall under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, it would need to get written consent in order to obtain background checks on its guests and hosts. That’s not a deal breaker ("If I have consent in writing, I can pull any report," says Rebecca Richardson, a finance and restructuring partner at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP who deals with nonemployment usecases of the FCRA), but it is another step in the process.

It's possible to make the argument that adding background checks to this mix isn't necessary. After 50 million guests, there are no more than a handful of anecdotes of assault by Airbnb guests or hosts.

An Airbnb spokesperson provided this statement about its decision not to use background checks:

Rules and regulations around background checks are complex, and vary in different countries. Our community is truly international (on any given night, over 70% of Airbnb guests are from outside the U.S.), but there are few clear global solutions when it comes to background checks. We are always working on new ways to build transparency and trust for all of our guests and hosts worldwide. We provide a variety of tools so that our guests and hosts can research each other before a reservation, including detailed profiles, authentic reviews, and a secure messaging system. Guests and hosts may also provide their photo identification through Verified ID.

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