Imposter Uber driver picks up Portland woman

on October 28, 2015 at 4:54 PM,

A Portland woman who was picked up by an imposter Uber driver says her case should serve as a warning to other women who use the ride-hailing service.

Courtney Lage was leaving a friend's birthday party just after midnight on Oct. 11 at a bar near Southeast Grand Avenue. She requested a ride through the Uber app and watched on her phone as the app showed the car approach.

As it appeared to get close, Lage said, a man pulled up and said "Uber?" 

Lage got in, but she told The Oregonian/Oregon Live she started getting nervous when, as he started driving away, the driver asked for her address. Uber drivers typically use the app's GPS navigation function, and it's programmed with the rider's address. The driver said his was broken, she said.

The driver was also missing an Uber placard usually displayed on the car.

"That's when I realized something's wrong here," Lage said.

When her actual Uber driver called her cellphone asking where she was, Lage demanded to be let out of the car. The man pulled over to the side of the Morrison Bridge and let her out before speeding off, she said.

"He didn't touch me, and he didn't threaten me," she said. "But I think the only reason you pretend to be an Uber is to harm someone."

The real Uber driver stayed on the phone with Lage and picked her up on the bridge.

She called police after she got home, but wasn't able to give officers a license plate number or thorough description of the driver. 

A passing driver might have been able to guess Lage was waiting for an Uber because she was waiting and watching her cell phone, she said. Police officers who interviewed Lage also asked if someone might have overheard her telling friends she was going to take Uber home, she said.

It's not clear a crime occurred, said Portland Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson, because Lage got in the car voluntarily and wasn't harmed or threatened. Still, he said, it's a reminder to be cautious.

Imposter Uber drivers have been reported elsewhere. In Tallahassee, Florida, police arrested a 35-year-old man who allegedly claimed to be an Uber driver before exposing himself to a college student and assaulting her, and police at Texas Christian University have warned students to be on the lookout for a man claiming to be an Uber driver who made "indecent comments" and while driving a student and tried to hug her as she demanded to be let out of the car.

Uber said the company builds safeguards into its app to protect riders from imposters. Riders are shown a picture of the car that will pick them up, its license plate number, a picture of the driver and the driver's first name.

Uber spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said drivers are trained to address riders by their first name when picking them up to verify they're affiliated with Uber. And, she said, riders don't have to wait outside in view of passing drivers.

"When you request a ride, you're notified when it arrives," Whaling said. "You don't have to wait on a street corner."

Lage told police the imposter vehicle was a blue Toyota RAV4 with older windows. The real driver drove a similarly colored Mazda, Lage said, and he was wearing sunglasses in his profile photo on Uber, obscuring his face. 

Lage said she should have paid more attention to those safety features. But in talking to friends about the experience, she said, she found many have similarly hopped into Uber cars without double-checking.

"I'm the very first to admit they do have some security measures I didn't pay attention to," she said. "If more women know this is a possibility, they won't make the same mistakes I did."

-- Elliot Njus

enjus@oregonian.com