After woman allegedly murdered by fake Uber, students are cautious

With the March 29 murder of a young student in South Carolina who entered what she thought was her Uber, the experiences Chapman students have had add to public concern. Photo illustration by Mia Fortunato

A student from the University of South Carolina got into a car she believed to be her Uber after spending a night out with friends March 29. Her body was discovered the next day by turkey hunters 65 miles away from her pickup point.

Last year, a Chapman student who was returning in a Lyft back to the residence halls, allegedly woke up at their drop-off point to find the driver fondling him or her.

While transportation applications such as Lyft and Uber can be efficient options for traveling, the safety of these options has become a concern.

Audrey Gaitley, a freshman psychology major, has experienced multiple strange encounters. One incident involved her getting into an Uber she called that made her get out because she slammed the door too hard. But before she could call a new one, another car appeared. The driver knew her name and said he was her Uber. Gaitley thought it was suspicious, but didn’t say anything – because the driver did know her name.

“We went down the block, and I see the car that I just got out of pulled over to the side. After we pass him, he follows us for my 15-minute drive,” she said. “As I get out of his car, the (first car) came up behind him and got out of his car and I just ran to where I was going. I had no idea if they were working together.”

Gaitley also remembers riding in an Uber with a hat-obsessed driver.

“They’re on the dashboard, the back, on the seats, and we are just sitting there, but he wouldn’t let us touch his hats,” Gaitley said. “He would put one on and start speaking in whatever accent that hat represents, and puts on this whole persona.”

Chief of Public Safety Randy Burba said the buddy system is crucial when Ubering, just like walking somewhere at night.

“We tell people don’t walk alone, walk in groups. Because it’s safer in groups. The same thing applies to a Lyft or Uber ride,” Burba said. “If you’re out partying with friends, and you decide someone’s had too much drink, someone from the group should go with them.”

Uncomfortable and negative Uber experiences can easily have profound effects on a student’s daily life, said Dean of Students Jerry Price.

“I hear about (driver assault incidents) maybe once or twice a year here (at Chapman),” Price said. “One student who has an incident that we would, on a scale of 10, call an eight, may in a few days or weeks get over it. Someone else who has one that’s a two or three may still bother them months later. It’s really difficult to know.”

The company has improved its Uber safety, Burba said, but he also emphasized looking out for yourself and others constantly.

“My goal for Chapman students, whether it’s Uber or their personal safety, is to not be complacent and have a neighborhood watch mentality. If there’s five Public Safety officers on duty driving around and walking, that’s 10 eyes looking out for everybody,” he said. “If every Chapman student, faculty, and staff looks, sees, says something or calls in anything suspicious, that’s 10,000 eyes.”

It’s not just passengers who have negative Uber experiences. Gaitley described an Uber incident she once encountered where her female driver had just been sexually assaulted by a previous passenger.

“We asked her how her night was going and she told us that the last passenger she drove had assaulted her, and kept touching her inappropriately the entire ride,” Gaitley said. “She said she called her parents and boyfriend right after, and that we were her last ride of the night because she needed to go home after that. I felt so bad.”

In efforts to promote safety, Uber sent out an email to its users after Samantha Josephson’s murder, informing them to “Check your ride, every time” by looking at the license plate number, the car make and model and the driver’s photo.