A bag of white stuff. A cigar box wrapped tightly in duct tape. A bottle of pills labeled as a prescription amphetamine.
Drivers for Uber’s courier service don’t always know what’s inside the suspicious-looking packages that people ask them to deliver — but some know they don’t want to be a part of it.
NBC News spoke to six drivers from around the U.S. and Australia who said they are worried they’re being used as unwitting “drug mules,” ferrying across town what they believe may be narcotics while doing work for Uber Connect, a courier service the tech company started early in the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s hard to determine if a package contains drugs or not. And that leaves drivers in a bind: Drive the packages to the police, or go ahead and make the delivery?
Kyle Brock said he was driving for Uber in Mesa, Arizona, last year when an Uber Connect customer ordered a package delivery from one motel to another motel at 1 a.m.
“The package was just a grocery bag with the most random and worthless stuff in it,” he said in an interview.
There was a pen, some candy and a box about the size of two decks of cards covered in an excessive amount of tape. He guessed there was narcotics inside the box, but Uber prohibits drivers from tampering with a package, so he didn’t open it.
“I dropped off the package with quite a bit of dread,” he said. A nervous-looking person accepted the bag, he said, and Brock stopped driving for Uber shortly after.
In January, Chicago police impounded a Band-Aid box with suspected narcotics after an Uber Connect driver told an officer she opened it and found what she thought was crystal meth. And a sheriff’s office in Tampa sent a crystalized substance to a Florida state lab for testing after an Uber Connect driver turned it over in April.
Uber itself said it had received six information requests from law enforcement related to suspected drugs and Uber Connect since 2021, although the company said that receiving a request doesn’t necessarily confirm its service was used to transport narcotics.
While it’s not clear how often drugs are an issue for Uber’s package delivery service, it’s a hot topic in online forums for drivers. On sites such as Reddit, which does not require verification that someone is a driver, people have wondered what kind of trouble they could get in if police pulled them over or if an irate customer found out they reported a package to authorities.
“Even not knowing, you’re still caught holding the bag. And it’s just not worth it for 13 bucks,” said a driver in Southern California. He asked not to be identified to protect his safety. He provided NBC News with screenshots to confirm his identity and work for Uber.
Uber said that using its services for illegal activity is expressly prohibited, and that it takes reports of drug deliveries via Uber Connect very seriously.
“When we receive this type of report, our global safety team investigates and may take actions ranging from deactivating the relevant account to reporting the issue to law enforcement,” Uber said in a statement in response to written questions. The company declined a request for an interview.
“The misuse of shipping and transportation platforms to deliver illicit drugs is an industry-wide issue, and we will continue partnering with law enforcement to address it,” the company said.
Five of the six drivers agreed to speak with NBC News about their experiences on condition of anonymity to protect their safety because they said they feared retaliation from drug dealers and from Uber. Each of the six drivers provided NBC News with screenshots as evidence that they drove for Uber. Three of the six drivers provided photos they had taken of what they suspected were drugs they were handed to deliver.
The alleged drug packages add to a long list of challenges already facing some people who drive for Uber, such as carjackings, few guaranteed benefits, opaque formulas to determine pay, few options for bathroom breaks and an on-and-off corporate ambition to replace human drivers with robots.
It works like the company’s passenger service. A customer uses Uber’s app to enter pick-up and drop-off locations, view the price, add instructions if they wish, and agree to terms and conditions listing prohibited items such as drugs, alcohol, medication and firearms — instances that may be reported to the authorities, according to the company. The driver arrives and takes the package at the customer’s door or at the curb, and then drives it to the delivery point. The customer can monitor the driver’s location throughout the delivery.
Uber, based in San Francisco, has been trying out a series of new services including party-bus rentals and expanded grocery delivery in a push to become profitable. In the quarter ending June 30, Uber reported positive cash flow for the first time ever.
Some Uber Connect drivers have gone to the police with suspicions about packages they are assigned to deliver. A driver in Tampa said he suspected something was off when a customer waiting at a curb handed him a mostly empty plastic grocery bag. The customer wanted it delivered to a suburban home 14 miles away. The driver said he took the bag, drove away and eventually pulled over to take a closer look. Inside the plastic bag was a smaller, clear baggy.
“All I could see inside was one little baggy that had two crystalized forms in there,” the driver said. “Immediately, I assumed it was some kind of narcotic.”
He drove to a sheriff’s office substation in a strip mall where a deputy took a report, but the driver said he was nervous the whole time because the customer can track the package via the Uber app.
“I had my head on a swivel, because this person can see that I’ve diverted from the route, and if they know the area — which isn’t very far from their house — they can see I’m sitting outside the substation,” he said.
The deputy impounded the crystalized substances as suspected drugs. Field tests for a variety of drugs came back negative, and the substances are now awaiting testing at a Florida state lab, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
In Chicago, police recorded two incidents in the past year, when Uber Connect drivers came to them with packages that the drivers suspected contained drugs: a cereal box with cannabis and a Band-Aid box with crystal meth, according to police documents describing the driver’s suspicions. Chicago police said they impounded the substances but had no records that they went ahead with further testing.
Drivers said in interviews that they’ve been suspicious of a wide array of packages, including a “burner” cellphone box wrapped in tape and a single DVD case for a Nicolas Cage film that, when the driver shook it, seemed to have something other than a DVD in it.
But Uber’s rules don’t allow them to open or tamper with a package, and most said they followed those rules, leaving them with unconfirmed suspicions — along with concerns for their own safety.
Five of the six drivers said that they often felt pressured to go through with a delivery they didn’t want to make out of concern for their own safety: By the time the driver sees the package, the customer already has their first name, photo, license plate and vehicle description.
“Do we choose morality, or do we choose our safety? You have to choose your safety,” said a driver in Miami. “They have everything but your last name.”
And there’s a financial consideration — canceling suspicious deliveries could impact a driver’s bottom line.
“They can deactivate you if your cancellation rate is too high. You lose perks if your cancellation rate is too high,” said a driver in Chicago. He said he based that belief on his overall experience with the company and discussions with other drivers.
To cancel without a penalty, Uber requires the driver to first show up at the pick-up location, but by then it might feel unsafe to cancel, he said. “It’s too much of a risk at that point. It could escalate things and lead to an altercation,” he said.
Uber denied that drivers are penalized for too many cancellations. The company said it reimburses drivers if they go to law enforcement with a suspicious package, though it said that to qualify the drivers must submit documentation that they did so.
“If any driver suspects illegal activity, we encourage them to report it to both law enforcement and Uber. Drivers can cancel a delivery at any time if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable and will not be penalized in any way,” the company said in a statement.
Some drivers said they believed Uber’s support system for reporting suspicious items was insufficient. Drivers can file reports in writing through the app or by calling a phone number provided by the company.
The Tampa driver said that when he called an Uber support line about the two crystal-like substances, he was transferred 27 times. “I started counting after the fourth one,” he said. “No one seemed to know what to do.”
Another time, he said, a customer handed him a pharmacy bag with the receipt still on and a generic form of Adderall, an amphetamine, inside. Uber Connect’s list of prohibited items includes “pharmaceutical products,” but the driver said when he called Uber’s support line for advice, they told him to complete the delivery.
Uber said in its statement that some drivers’ experiences with support channels “fell short of our standards, and we’ll work with the relevant teams to learn and improve our processes.”
Not all the drivers follow the rules. The driver in Miami said she would sometimes open them to find cannabis or pills.
“It’s against Uber policy, but curiosity bites you sometimes,” she said. “It’s like, I know I’m a mule for something. I want to know what I’m a mule for.”
She said she never filed a complaint with Uber or with law enforcement because she didn’t believe they would do anything with her report. She said she went through with the deliveries out of fear for her safety.
Drug dealers have been found to use legitimate delivery services over the years. A 2018 report from the inspector general of the U.S. Postal Service found that illicit drug websites openly marketed to customers that they ship through the regular mail. And in 2020, the international law enforcement agency Interpol, without mentioning specific companies, notified members about drug dealers using courier services.
Sometimes delivery drivers are unwitting participants in the drug trade. In Malaysia, one courier asked police to inspect his food package after he noticed that a single order of Indian flatbread weighed nearly 11 kilograms. pic.twitter.com/Bq4koOePm4
— INTERPOL (@INTERPOL_HQ) April 30, 2020
U.S. authorities generally require private delivery companies to cooperate with drug investigations. UPS pledged cooperation in 2013 when it signed a nonprosecution agreement with the Justice Department.
Whether a tech platform such as Uber would face liability would depend on the circumstances, said Daniel Richman, a former federal narcotics prosecutor.
“Are they allowing their platform to be used for criminal purposes? What do they know? To what extent are they taking precautions to prevent this from happening and acting on reports?” said Richman, now a professor at Columbia Law School. “Platforms can be guilty, too.”
Uber said it takes preventative measures to enforce its policies, such as showing each customer a pop-up notification asking them to review a list of prohibited items. The company said it may remove customers who participate in illegal activity, and that it employs former law enforcement officers on teams dedicated to public safety and investigations.
Brock, the Arizona driver, said he feared the legal consequences of any possible drug deliveries would fall on him.
“Imagine trying to explain handing a package with drugs off to an undercover that doesn’t know you’re just Uber Connect,” he said. “You’re almost certainly getting arrested in that situation.”
Richman said it’s difficult to generalize about how much trouble an Uber Connect driver could get in. A strict reading of the law says that if a driver knows a package to contain drugs or is willfully blind to it, then they could be criminally liable, he said, but authorities might see that other people have put the driver in a vulnerable position.
“I wouldn’t assume that prosecutors and police really have a program to jam up Uber drivers for being placed in this situation,” Richman said.
It’s not clear how many law enforcement agencies have investigated alleged narcotics delivered via Uber Connect, besides those in Chicago and Florida’s Hillsborough County. Police in Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., said they hadn’t heard of it. A spokesperson in San Francisco said they had no information available. Representatives in other cities including Miami and New York City did not respond to requests for comment, and a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration declined to comment. In December, Uber said its courier service was available in 6,000 cities and towns in the U.S.
The driver in Southern California said he chose not to report any of the packages he considered suspicious to Uber or to the police.
“I didn’t want to ruffle feathers or risk deactivation,” he said. Uber denies it would deactivate drivers for such a report.
Uber said it was always looking for ways to improve Uber Connect, and drivers said they have several suggestions for changes. The drivers’ ideas include limiting the service only to businesses and excluding individuals; running background checks on individual customers; and removing penalties for canceling deliveries.
“It’s a very sketchy situation when you’re delivering packages from a private person to another private person. There’s no accountability for what they’re giving you,” the Tampa driver said.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com