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‘Ghost’ Uber drivers take real payments from Chinese users without providing rides

Uber China has refunded victims of a “ghost driver” scam experienced by Chinese users in recent weeks, with an employee of the car-hailing app suggesting the racket could be a gang crime, as the photoshopped IDs of the drivers involved are all similar.

Passengers from six cities including Beijing and Shanghai have told media their ride requests were answered by scammers who have come to be known as “ghost drivers” in the past two weeks, news portal The Paper.cn reported.

The drivers accepted ride requests on the service but did not contact or pick up the passenger, the report said.

Some passengers cancelled the trip themselves after receiving the drivers’ pictures, which had been photoshopped to show a twisted face with pale skin and dark lips, and in other cases, the drivers claimed the passengers cancelled the trips on arrival. In both situations, the Uber users were charged a minimum fee for the cancelled trips.

“This could be a gang crime as the horrifying photos of ghost drivers are very similar,” an employee from Uber China told the news outlet.

The employee said the purpose of the altered photos was also to circumvent Uber’s facial recognition technology, which was designed to enhance its control system and provide additional safeguards for both drivers and passengers when it was introduced by the company in April.

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“Ghost driver” scams were first revealed in early September when Uber users in Beijing and Shanghai reported being charged for such cancelled rides.

Similar scams were spotted in other Chinese cities including Chengdu, Qingdao and Xiamen after the initial reports.

Uber had used the app to “warn” such drivers and had refunded the charged fares to the passengers involved, the report said.

“It would be treated as fraud if the amount of money involved is more than 5,000 yuan (HK$5,815),” an expert from the Sharing Economy Committee of the Internet Society of China was quoted as saying.

Uber China and its fierce domestic rival Didi Chuxing merged on August 1, ending their expensive price war in China since 2013 according to media reports.

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Car-hailing services in China have long been a subject of controversy industry as concerns mount over safety issues.

The Ministry of Transport of China approved nationwide ride-hailing services in July, issuing guidelines that established a long-awaited framework for the booming industry.