All along the US coasts, from New York to California, a number of criminal cases have been popping up. The cases are just your typical drug busts, except the dealers are exploiting new technology to sling their goods. They’re using Uber to facilitate their drug deals.
Recently, it seems dealers have come to discover that a side job which pays them to drive around town would certainly complement their enterprise. Or, if they want to add a level of security to their slinging, alternating delivery vehicles could help hide suspicious patterns from the police.
For dealers who distribute as Uber drivers, the app offers an effective cover-up that gets the drugs from point A to B while masking criminal activity. For dealers who distribute as Uber passengers, the independent network of drivers working under the cover of a legitimate business offers exactly the kind of safety the dealers have always desired.
In either case, the popular ride-hailing app provides the drug market with a new avenue for an essential service: an innocuous delivery system.
Many dealers utilize the digital platform to make deliveries as Uber drivers. In August 2015, Los Angeles Weekly reported the story of an Uber driver in Glendale, California, who used his position as a cover to sell drugs. Authorities said the man had been driving for Uber for two years when they seized a stash of illegal narcotics, including MDMA, cocaine, psilocybin, methamphetamine, and 450 prescription pills, as well as rifles, a shotgun, pistol, and nearly $20,000 in cash.
The New York Post covered the story of an Uber driver who was arrested for ferrying large quantities of heroin to the high-level dealers of a Manhattan drug-trafficking ring. The Manhattan man made his rounds as he gave rides to unsuspecting passengers in his Toyota Highlander.
Dylan*, an entrepreneur working out of Denver, CO, buys his cocaine from a dealer who moonlights as an Uber driver. Whenever Dylan calls up his dealer for a gram or two, the coke is quickly at his doorstep. As Dylan describes it, his dealer doubling as an Uber driver makes him more readily available. Dylan’s dealer has commented on how his two jobs complement each other so well. “[My dealer] tells us he’s driving around town all day to sell coke, so he might as well be making some extra money with Uber while he’s doing it,” Dylan says.
While Dylan’s dealer is a highly cautious person, he does take some risks in blending his two businesses. His dealer will use Uber for networking, selling drugs to passengers that he grows familiar with and comes to trust. He carries his contraband at all times, even when he’s giving rides to unknowing Uber passengers. What’s worse, he carries his coke in dozens of single-gram baggies, which if he were to get caught, would make all the difference between a charge of possession and a charge of possession with intent to sell.
It isn’t always drivers utilizing Uber as their delivery mechanism. Passengers have also exploited the highly-evolved digital platform as a convenient means to distribute their drugs.
Earlier this year, a convicted Baltimore drug dealer was caught moving kilograms of heroin from the backseat of an Uber. The Drug Enforcement Administration believed the felon had been trafficking 10 to 20 kilograms per month. DEA agents commented that the man had been using multiple residences and varying delivery vehicles to "conceal his drug trafficking activities and thwart law enforcement intrusion."
In January 2015 in Thousand Oaks, CA, police pulled over an Uber driver who was transporting two young men. The boys in the back seat were caught holding $2,000 and a quarter-pound of highly-potent hash oil, which they confessed they were en route to sell.
The video below captures footage of 4 young men in Boston, MA executing a drug deal from the backseat of their Uber. When the driver accuses his passengers of buying drugs, he tries to kick the men out of his car. In attempting to avoid implicating himself as an accomplice to their crime, he faces threats from a belligerent passenger who refuses to leave the driver’s vehicle.
Regardless of whether they’re behind the wheel or in the passenger’s seat, dealers should still have some concerns about using Uber to do their dirty work. For example, there’s the threat that Uber could collect data on the drivers, passengers, or locations of suspected drug deals. If the company did keep records of that information, they could identify zones of suspected drug activity, and flag any drivers or passengers that ride to that destination. Both buyers and sellers have a lot to lose if such a paper trail is established.
According to a number of web forums where Uber drivers exchange stories, such as r/uberdrivers on reddit or uberpeople.net, a multitude of drivers have given rides to people who used their service to either buy or sell drugs. Dave, an Uber driver working out of Monterrey, CA posted to an UberPeople thread, “Riders have luggage all the time. A smart dope dealer would probably use a suitcase or at least a backpack, and I’d be none the wiser.”
Dave’s right. Most Uber drivers are likely completely ignorant of if and when they’re muling drugs. And that’s what terrifies most users on Uber driver forums. The resounding fear is that the police could pull them over while they’re unknowingly transporting a dealer. At that point, the dealer may dump their stash in the back seat and deny any ownership of it. As the owner of the vehicle, any drugs the police find would legally belong to the driver.
Law-abiding Uber drivers are not trained how to handle situations in which they believe passengers might be trafficking drugs. For that reason, many drivers are left dumbfounded when trying to prepare for such a scenario.
Although there have been a multitude of cases in which Uber was used to facilitate drug deals, the company has not publicly addressed the issue. When Uber was asked what the company does with passenger and ride information of suspected drug deals and if the company reports on people or locations involved in suspected drug activity, the company declined to comment. It seems until the issue becomes more pervasive, the company will not allocate time and resources to combat it.
Uber is innovating the driving industry, using ride-sharing to make transportation universally available. But in doing so, the app is also innovating the way that we deal drugs. The illegal drug trade will always continue. Ride-sharing only allows people to unknowingly share the risk.