TAMPA, Fla. — Social media sites are helping to connect drivers with riders for cash, and now Florida state officials are warning consumers to steer clear of these “shady operators.”
So-called "cash rides" are part of a growing, unregulated market where drivers use sites like Facebook to solicit business from consumers willing to pay cash for a ride from a stranger. But WFTS found some drivers soliciting rides for cash had histories plagued with traffic infractions, arrests or convictions for battery, assault and one guy advertising his marijuana-friendly ride isn’t even legally allowed to drive a car after the state revoked his license years ago.
“I was just shocked,” said Victoria Gudbranson, who WFTS spoke with during the summer when she was an approved Lyft driver. She first heard about these cash rides months prior.
“We go through background checks. You don’t know if the person you’re getting into the car with has a criminal record, is a registered sex offender, you don’t know this,” Gudbranson said.
Unlike popular approved ridesharing programs like Uber and Lyft, drivers who offer rides for cash aren’t vetted, haven’t gone through a background check and don’t have to adhere to any special guidelines when it comes to insurance.
If you think common sense would keep this practice from gaining speed, a look at a number of public Facebook groups appears to show this underground practice is thriving in Florida. We found a number of "cash rides" social media pages in Tampa, Orlando and Miami, just to name a few. Some drivers posted their availability 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Scary,” said Chris Black, a Tampa-based insurance agent and board member of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents. Black said state law requires legitimate rideshare drivers carry insurance that protects them and riders in the event of an accident. In this black market of cash rides, Black said riders are leaving themselves vulnerable.
“If you are in that vehicle and you are injured, who’s going to pay for the damage? Who’s going to pay for the medical bills?” he said. “Definitely high risk for the passenger, for the driver, for everyone else on the road.”
A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Financial Services described what was found as “shady businesses operating outside the confines of the law."
“Consumers should only schedule rides with reputable companies and through their official apps," said Alecia Collins, a press secretary for the Florida Department of Financial Services. "Local law enforcement should be contacted if consumers are approached by these shady operators."
On a recent Thursday, WFTS decided to connect with a driver for cash.
After conducting a background check, we met the man in a Publix shopping plaza. Our cash ride was 12 miles, off highway and cost $18 versus a few dollars more had we used Lyft or Uber. When the driver was asked why he doesn’t just drive for a legitimate rideshare program, he said his car wouldn’t meet their requirements.
WFTS contacted Facebook to alert them of these unregulated groups, and we haven't heard back. But we are hearing from some angry cash drivers who said legitimate rideshare programs have also had issues with dangerous drivers and, they said, it's hard to make money since the company takes a portion of your earnings.
One driver who works for rideshare programs and asked she remain anonymous told said, "it's become harder to make enough. Since they changed the mileage rate, we're making less. What happened to the good old days when you get a cab, pay cash and get on your way."
This story was originally published by Katie LaGrone on WFTS.