Unaccompanied Minors: A Loophole for Sexual Abusers

In recent years, the convenience and accessibility of rideshare services like Uber and Lyft have revolutionized transportation. However, a disturbing trend has emerged, as sexual abusers exploit these platforms to transport unaccompanied minors, circumventing the companies’ terms of service. A review of criminal court records and lawsuits by NBC News has uncovered 10 instances since 2017 where adults accused of planning sexual abuse used Uber or Lyft to transport teenagers or children to homes or hotel rooms.

5 Key Points:

  • Court records show sexual abusers have used Lyft and Uber to transport unaccompanied minors to locations for exploitation.
  • Uber and Lyft have policies prohibiting unaccompanied minors but rely on drivers to enforce them.
  • Drivers face challenges in identifying and reporting unaccompanied minors, and some fear negative consequences for doing so.
  • Lyft and Uber offer training on human trafficking but face questions about its effectiveness and reach.
  • Lawsuits allege that Lyft and Uber have not done enough to prevent the exploitation of minors on their platforms.

The FBI’s Warning and Industry Response

The FBI issued an alert in 2022, warning of “reports of rideshare services being used to facilitate child abduction.” The agency noted that potential abusers believed rideshare services provided more privacy from witnesses compared to traditional transportation. While these incidents are rare, the FBI emphasized their high impact on victims.

In response, Uber and Lyft have implemented changes to reduce the potential for abuse and increase safety for minors. These include new training materials for drivers on identifying abusive situations and an Uber program allowing teens to take pre-approved rides. Both companies state their commitment to platform safety and providing resources to drivers and riders in vulnerable positions.

Alleged Incidents and Lawsuits

NBC News identified six instances where court records indicate teens or children took unaccompanied rides, violating the apps’ terms of service. In three other cases, adults ordered rides, thinking they were transporting minors, but were communicating with undercover agents.

Several lawsuits have been filed against Lyft by families of accusers, alleging negligence by the company and its drivers in preventing the exploitation of minors. One case, settled for $9 million, involved an 11-year-old girl transported by three different Lyft drivers over two days, leading to her assault.

Challenges for Drivers and Enforcement

Uber and Lyft’s policies prohibit unaccompanied minors from using their services, but enforcement largely falls on drivers. The apps don’t require passengers to verify their age in most cases, putting drivers in a challenging position as front-line enforcers.

Drivers have expressed concerns about the difficulties in identifying and reporting suspected unaccompanied minors, fearing negative consequences such as lost time, retaliatory reviews, or not receiving cancellation fees. Some have reported being penalized after refusing ride requests for unaccompanied minors.

Training and Partnerships to Combat Trafficking

Both Lyft and Uber provide training materials and videos to educate drivers on identifying and reporting human trafficking. They partner with organizations like the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the Department of Homeland Security’s “Blue Campaign” to combat trafficking.

However, questions remain about the effectiveness and reach of these training programs. It is unclear how often drivers engage with the provided materials, and some experts suggest that the occurrence of unaccompanied minors taking rides may indicate insufficient training.

The Future of Rideshare Safety for Minors

As scrutiny of rideshare safety increases, lawmakers and regulators are taking action. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators launched an investigation into how Lyft and Uber prevent human trafficking on their platforms. In Texas, a new law requires annual training for rideshare drivers to spot human trafficking.

Uber has introduced “Uber for teens” in some areas, allowing minors to take rides with parental consent and oversight. However, this service is not available in all markets, and its impact on preventing abuse remains to be seen.

The emergence of autonomous vehicles, or robotaxis, presents additional challenges in enforcing unaccompanied minor policies. Companies like Waymo, which operates robotaxi services, state they prohibit unaccompanied minors and may use interior cameras to identify policy violations.

Preventing rideshare sexual abuse requires a multi-faceted approach, including more effective age verification systems, improved driver training, and stronger partnerships between rideshare companies and organizations combating human trafficking. Increased awareness and vigilance from drivers, passengers, and the public are also crucial in identifying and reporting potential cases of exploitation.

As the rideshare industry continues to evolve, it is imperative that companies prioritize the safety of minors and work diligently to close loopholes exploited by sexual abusers. Only through concerted efforts and collaboration can we ensure that the convenience of rideshare services does not come at the cost of the well-being of our most vulnerable populations.