Uber's Text Message Spam Is Driving People Crazy

Federal Trade Commission complaints obtained by Motherboard show that people who have no association with the company are getting spammed with unsolicited messages.

by Jason Koebler
Dec 11 2014, 4:20pm

Image: Author

Uber won't stop annoying its customers, drivers, and its drivers' friends and acquaintances with text messaging spam, according to Federal Trade Commission complaints obtained by Motherboard through a Freedom of Information Act Request.

People who have never driven for or even used the service said they are still receiving a high volume of text messages from Uber and have been unable to make them stop, according to the complaints filed with the agency.

"Over the course of two weeks, I have received three unsolicited spam texts from the Uber car service company, all from different phone numbers," one complaint reads. "I have never previously done business with nor provided my phone number to this company in any way. I have never given my phone number out for use by any telemarketing or other marketing/survey service. My phone is on the national Do Not Call registry and is not publicly available."

Another complaint is for "unsolicited and unauthorized texted marketing for Uber."

This company has sent me unwanted text messages 42 times in two weeks

Other complaints about text message spam come from people who once worked for or used Uber, but are unable to get the company to stop texting them. Many of the complaints were from prospective employees who eventually decided not to drive for Uber, but have been unable to get out of the company's text messaging system.

"Uber is driving me crazy sending multiple different texts a day from various numbers," one complaint reads.

"This company has sent me unwanted text messages 42 times in two weeks," another said. "I have told them to stop over a dozen times and they still send them almost daily."

Another complaint says the company had been sending more than 10 texts per day.

Image: UberPeople

In total, 14 of the 53 complaints filed with the FTC against Uber were for unsolicited text messages and calls.

The complaints "have not been verified by the FTC," the agency told Motherboard, and consumer names and addresses have been redacted. However, the specificity, number of complaints, recurring nature of the complaints, and similarity to several posts on Uber-related forums suggest that the problem of Uber text-message spam isn't isolated.

Some drivers have complained to Uber and the media that the company sent unsolicited messages to their contacts after they installed the Uber app on their personal phones.

The company, however, told Motherboard that "Uber does not ask for or have access to drivers' contacts stored on their personal phones."

"Like others in our industry, we also have a referral program for drivers to invite their friends to drive using Uber, and those individuals may also receive text messages," a company spokesperson said. "Drivers can only refer people who they attest have agreed to be contacted, and drivers must agree to this policy each time they refer someone."

Eight months later, he was still receiving five texts a day

Nevertheless, people around the country continue to be annoyed by Uber's texting practices. Most of the text message-related complaints are from the last several months, and most take on an exasperated tone.

"Receiving unwanted text messages as well as emails soliciting Uber services and marketing for me to drive for them. I have made repeated attempts to try to get off their lists and all have failed," one said.

"Uber has been texting me for the past month. They texted me on Christmas eve at 1:44am and 4:10am. I returned texts saying STOP. I wrote them an email asking them to remove my number from their lists. And I'm still getting text messages," read another.

"I was interested at one time in the UBER position but I needed to have a car that I no longer have access to. It is with my soon to be ex wife. I explained this and told them that I was no longer interested," another read. "Yet daily, I get a text from them to submit the documents to continue the process and I have sent back numerous texts that I was no longer interested. I have tried to call them and there is no answer or reply. This has been going on for several months and I have lost patience with these folks and I need help to stop this. It is as if they are harassing me for not following through with them."

Image: Uber

There are also several forum posts from drivers who claim that "text messages from Uber are out of control." Last month, a reddit poster says he tried to sign up to drive for Uber early in the year but was rejected. Eight months later, he was still receiving five texts a day.

Uber says that it certainly does send out plenty of texts, but that most of them are necessary.

"People receive texts from Uber for a variety of reasons. Riders may get texts when their Uber arrives. Drivers may also receive text messages—for example, to let them know that demand is particularly high. People who sign up to drive using Uber may receive text messages reminding them to complete the sign-up process," the spokesperson said.

The company would not comment on what service it uses to send text messages or whether there would be any reason for the messages to continue after a user or driver texts STOP, but said that "the systems used to send text messages have evolved over time."

The company isn't doing enough to make sure the recipients of these messages are able to get the company off their back, privacy advocates say. The text messages we've seen from Uber don't explain that texting "STOP" will actually stop them—and some of the complaints specifically mention that the keyword didn't work.

"If I got one, I'd try 'unsubscribe' or curse at it maybe, but I'm not sure everyone is aware of 'STOP' as a magical catch phrase to make it stop," Justin Brookman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's consumer privacy project, said. "Adding that in there is not too many characters, especially if they're sending a lot of them. I think a lot of people still get charged per text, so it'd be better for them to be more explicit about how to turn it off."

A lot of these unwanted texts are most likely coming from the driver referral program, with current drivers referring their friends without telling them. That puts the program in a legal gray area, Brookman says. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 puts limits on automatic telemarketing campaigns, and a circuit court decision in 2009 suggested that that protection extends to text messaging. Whether a person can "opt-in" their friend by giving out their phone number is questionable, he said.

"You could argue that their primary beef should be with friend who gave their number over, but Uber should offer an easy way to say hey, knock it off," Brookman said.

Just this week, Uber is dealing with legal battles in California, Nevada, Portland, Spain, and Thailand. One of its drivers has been arrested for allegedly raping a passenger in India, and then there was the suggestion by an Uber executive that it would investigate and smear journalists who wrote negative stories about the company. Considering all of that, text messaging spam is probably the least of the company's worries at the moment.

Derek Mead contributed additional reporting on this story.