With the help of companies like Lyft, TaskRabbit, or Airbnb, you can transform yourself into a car rental, errand service or hotelier. It’s called the Sharing Economy, but is it safe?
Chances are you’ve seen a car with a big, pink, fuzzy mustache attached to its front bumper (recently replaced with the glowing “dashstache” pictured above), or maybe you’ve even gotten a ride from one. They’re Lyft cars: private vehicles offered as a taxi alternative to people who are embracing the new “sharing economy.” That’s the peer-to-peer system of selling your time or resources, effectively turning you and your stuff into a business. It’s becoming hugely popular: since its founding in 2009, Uber has expanded to more than 130 cities and been valued at more than $18 billion. Lyft is the runner-up in the same category; then there’s the hotel alternative, Airbnb, where vacationers can rent rooms or apartments from private owners; Fiverr, where five dollars will get you anything from graphic design to music promotion, and TaskRabbit, where individuals offer to run errands or take care of small tasks ranging from assembling an IKEA bookcase to putting up party decorations.
With a collection of everyday people doing the jobs, not employees governed by a central company and its rules, are these services safe to use?
The companies say yes, yes, of course YES. A recent Time magazine article on the subject is illuminating. Let’s look at the perks and perils of the most popular of these companies, and figure out how much a buyer should beware.
BABY YOU CAN DRIVE MY CAR
Let’s just say it— the taxi industry had gotten complacent, and disgusting. The environment was ripe for a company like Uber to come in and completely who we get a ride from and how we find and pay for it. They’re selling convenience, and the dream of having an ever-ready private driver to whisk you away to where you want to go. (Lyft is similar, but is branded as a more “fun buddy pickup” and less “luxe limo transport” service.)
While Uber and Lyft may appear to be transportation carrier companies, they refer to themselves as platforms that allow people to find, track and pay for rides from a fleet of drivers in an ever-growing list of cities. That distinction is important, because it means that none of these drivers are employees— they all work for themselves, so insurance and protection from a large organization is off the table. Companies like Lyft and Uber do promise a three-step criminal background check and ongoing reviews of drivers’ records, and Uber claims its checks can be more thorough than those required of taxi drivers. (Lyft does all this plus vehicle safety checks.) But Uber still isn’t subject to licensure requirements, rate standards, regular police inspection or the special training that cabbies receive from local police.
Is the experience more comfortable and cleaner overall? In my experience, yes. But there’s no reason for me to feel safer in an Uber or Lyft than I do in a taxi: Drivers go through training, but it’s not regulated by any government agency. And there have been complaints about Uber drivers sexually assaulting female riders, or calling rider’s numbers later to ask for dates (though if you Google “cab driver rape” you’ll be reading for days). Taxis are often reckless, belligerent, or distracted, and they have little incentive to clean up their act (an Uber or Lyft driver will get rated lower or booted for bad behavior). Lyft drivers are offered an insurance policy that properly insures them as commercial vehicles in the event of an accident. Uber does too, but only as recently as March 14, 2014, after much pressure, and unfortunately some tragic accidents.
What to do: Make sure you read up on these services’ safety features and insurance requirements for drivers. Make sure you’re riding with a driver with a stellar rating, and make sure your driver isn’t distracting himself with the app while you’re in transit. And if you’d like to be driven by someone licensed to operate a livery vehicle, you’ll have to pay for UberBLACK.
MI CASA ES SU CASA
Since its founding in 2008, Airbnb has expanded to more than one million listings in 190 countries; places to stay, often at a rate much lower than they’d pay for an actual hotel. Airbnb listings are hosted by regular people like you and me: You could offer up your guest house, a room in your basement, or an entire home to a kindly traveler looking to avoid the local Hilton. The system includes profiles of property owners, pictures of the property and user reviews, and all money goes through Airbnb.
What kind of security do you have if you pay online and things go wrong; say, if you show up and find the place isn’t “as pictured” (read: disgusting). Airbnb states that it will “(at our discretion) either provide the Guest with a refund or use reasonable efforts to find and book the Guest at another comparable Accommodation for any unused nights left in your reservation. The amount of any refund will depend on the nature of the Travel Issue suffered.” Asking your host plenty of questions before committing may help to avoid some issues down the road.
On the renter’s end, there have been some horror stories, too, including one woman who rented her Palm Springs home to a tenant who then refused to leave. Airbnb promises $1 million coverage for loss and damage beyond “reasonable wear and tear,” but that doesn’t help when the issue is getting someone out of your rental (the woman with the squatter was reimbursed by Airbnb for the rental time, but ousting him from her place is her responsibility). Just how liable (or not) Airbnb is for possible problems was brought to light when a recent renter was attacked by the host’s Rottweiler while staying at her home.
What to do: Before using the service, be sure you’re comfortable with Airbnb’s “at your own risk” terms. And if your’e considering becoming an Airbnb host, be sure you know the local laws first.
Fiverr, the “$5 marketplace” that focuses on freelance “gigs” (programming, music, writing and everything to do with websites) might seem too good to be true, for buyers; many jobs look too labor-intensive to be done for just $5 (actually $4 after Fiverr’s 20% commission). But Fiverr’s sellers tend to be hobbyists looking to make a few dollars and to gain experience or recognition, and some pros offer “add-on” services for more money. Unfortunately, negative reviews from both buyers and sellers are rampant. Sellers say that the site offers weak support, and will refund a buyer’s money with little case review, even months after a gig is done. Buyers say some unprofessional sellers don’t deliver. Fiverr forbids exchanging personal info, yet notes that there are cases where it’s necessary in order to complete a job, and allows that on the order form.
What to do: Read all reviews, choose only top-rated Fiverrs, and know that, sometimes, you get what you pay for.
If your to-do list contains more tasks than you can handle, TaskRabbit hopes to take some work off your hands by hiring out Taskers: people who will do your menial jobs, from laundry to filing, for an hourly fee (the Taskers set their base, and TaskRabbit adds its fee above that, the amount of which can vary). Though taskers are still contract workers, not employees—according to the company’s guidelines, TaskRabbit is “a platform to grow your own business”—TaskRabbit conducts a fairly traditional hiring process, akin to a temp service. It includes not only a background check on each Tasker, but also an interview and training session. There is a rigorous set of guidelines for Taskers, but they themselves are offered little protection: No insurance, no guarantee of working conditions and they often get paid less than minimum wage to do some pretty horrific stuff. And while Taskers can review an employer, that review isn’t visible future Taskers deciding whether or not to take a new job (unlike services like Uber or Lyft who allow drivers to rate the passenger).
What to do: Choose “elite” (top-rated) Taskers, and read reviews before moving forward. And if you’re considering becoming a Tasker, know that while TaskRabbit is a great lead generator for your business, it’s otherwise unsupportive of your health & well-being.
Whether you’re entering into the sharing economy as a service provider a buyer, it’s important to know your risk. Communicate, ask questions and keep your eyes open.
What’s your experience been like? Care to share in the comments?