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When I wrote two weeks ago about a frightening experience that a friend experienced on an Uber ride, I was contacted by a second Uber customer who also experienced a scary incident a few days later. I learned something very surprising when I spoke with her: the Uber app has a major flaw that adds more risk to an Uber trip.

On Aug. 21, Mandy, a resident of the Contra Costa County, east of Oakland, called for an Uber car to drive her home from a party that she and her husband were attending less than a mile away. She was tired after a stressful workweek, had enough food and drink, and was ready for a good night’s sleep. Her husband remained at the party.

Mandy recounted how she got into the car, and the driver, who received the destination when the car was called, sped off in the wrong direction and told her he was going to take her out for “a good time.” Only after she turned on her iPhone and started recording a video of the ride, did the driver reverse direction and drive her home. She then called the police and attempted to reach Uber.

(Watch her video at

When the police asked her for the make, model and license plate of the car, Mandy looked for the e-receipt on her phone and assumed that the information would be there, since it’s prominently displayed when you order an Uber car. But it wasn’t. Instead, there was just a short summary of her ride and payment.

Now, nearly every article written about Uber mentions that Uber provides the customer with all of this information for the passenger’s safety, and almost everyone assumes it’s part of the record of your trip you get on your phone. As one who has used Uber dozens of time, I assumed it as well.

In fact, Uber notes this on its site under “safety”: “You’ll receive important details about your ride, like contact info for the driver and the license plate of the car. You can track the exact location of the driver and even share details about your trip with anyone who is waiting for you at your destination or just wants to know you are getting home safe.”

With the information gone, Mandy was unable to provide it to the police. When she asked Uber for it, she told me they refused and told her that they would only provide it to the police at their request.

Mandy was told by Uber that her driver is known to have a hearing problem and, based on their investigation, he simply misunderstood her request to take her home. Mandy clearly disagreed, and said that the driver had not misunderstood her, he clearly stated he was “taking her out for a good time.”

Mandy then did some testing of the Uber app. She asked a friend who uses Uber to monitor the functionality of the app on her next ride to determine what information is available on her phone’s Uber app and how it changes between calling for the car and reaching her destination.

Here’s what she discovered:

The first image on the Uber app, once a car is requested, shows the “En Route” view that remains until the Uber driver arrives. It has the driver’s photo, the driver’s first name, license plate number, make and model of the Uber car and contact information.

Once the customer gets in the car, the driver then clicks “Start” on the app to begin the fare calculation and the trip. This is when the customer’s display-screen changes from “En Route” to “On Trip.”

On the “On Trip” view, the driver’s picture and first name is still visible, but the make, model and license plate number disappear.   Should the passenger need to call for help during the ride, she has no access to the car’s license plate number.

When the driver reaches the destination and clicks, “End” on the app, the fare amount and the rating feedback system appears on the passenger’s phone with a “Leave a Comment” text box. Only the driver’s first name is displayed on this screen.

When you later check the records of past rides you’ve taken on Uber, the “My History” image displays a picture of the driver’s face, the fare, and make and model of the car. The license plate number is still not listed.

Shortly after, Uber mails a receipt that indicates the route of the trip, fare, driver’s first name and another chance to rate the driver.

You would think that an Uber trip could be made safer by providing the driver and license number not only before, but also both during and after the trip. That way the rider has a better recourse to get help, and the driver, knowing his rider has that information, will be less likely to do anything improper.

I asked Uber why wouldn’t they do this and after five days have not responded.

What can you do about this? Anytime you order an Uber car, before you get in it, take a snapshot of your phone’s display showing the full information.

(On an iPhone, press and hold the on/off button and then quickly press the home button; the image will be saved with your photos. Most Android phones work similarly by holding down simultaneously the on/off button and either the volume down button or home button).

You will now have a permanent record of the driver and car plates, should you need to make a police report. And if you encounter any issues during the ride, you can email the image to a friend, and inform the driver of what you’ve done.

This critical look at Uber is not meant to diminish its brilliant concept. But great ideas are only as good as their execution. And from two victims I’ve personally spoken with, there’s an opportunity to make Uber safer for the customer.

You can also follow my columns at San Diego Transcript’s new site,, and at my new blog at I can be reached at


The cellular companies are losing some of their hold on our cellular services and that’s a good thing.

Much of this began when the FCC disapproved the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. As predicted by the FCC and the consumer groups opposing the merger, this has resulted in more competition.

Left on its own, T-Mobile, a distant fourth, changed the pricing model by offering a lower monthly service rate and selling phones separately, with some of the cost spread out in 24 monthly payments. This was a much more transparent pricing plan, and now most of the other carriers offer something similar.

Previously, the carriers appeared to subsidize the purchase of a new phone, charging $200 or $300 for a phone that might retail for $600 or $700. But in fact, they charged a higher monthly payment for service, typically about $40 to $50, about half of which was for the cost of the phone. At the end of the two years, if you didn’t upgrade to a new phone, the monthly rate would remain the same, while the carriers raked in the extra profits.

But now Apple has made a move that reduces the carriers’ influence even more. Apple has made its new iPhones compatible with all networks and sells them unlocked. So if you buy a phone from Apple rather than from your carrier, it will work with every other carrier.

All of this can free you from a long-term commitment, so you are no longer tied to a contract with your carrier. You are free to switch to a different carrier anytime. In fact, Apple could possibly help you select your carrier, providing price comparisons, when you buy your phone at an Apple store or online.

Taking a page out of the car-leasing business, Apple will now lease you a new unlocked iPhone, usable on any carrier, for a monthly payment beginning at $32 a month for a 16GB iPhone 6S or up to $45 a month for 128G iPhone6S plus. This includes the AppleCare+ service and warranty, and gives you a new phone every year for a continuing payment. This is a brilliant move, because it masks the iPhones’ high costs, just as it faces competition from more low priced phones.

We are slowly but surely getting closer to a model where the phone is the car and the cellular service is the gasoline. You need not stick with just one brand of cellular service or gas.

Expect to see the carriers becoming even more competitive. I recently changed to Verizon’s new simplified “Verizon Plan XL,” which is a good example of a more common sense plan that lowered my rates and provided more data.

In this plan, I pay $20 per phone that I bring (and $40 if it’s still being subsidized by Verizon), plus $80 for 12GB of data. Once the subsidy ends, the charge drops from $40 to $20. My family uses five phones and one iPad with LTE. Data is shared among all six devices on this plan. It’s a good deal and something similar to the other carriers’ new plans. My monthly bill now runs $290. Just two years ago I was paying $225/month for just two phones and 3GB of data.

Of course, we are using more data than ever and it will only go up. If I send a 1GB image to my wife and she sends it to my son and daughter-in-law, the data usage for this family plan is actually 5GB, since it counts each time one of us receives and sends the file. In other words, data usage adds up fast, particularly in these family accounts.

In spite of progress, the carriers still retain some consumer-unfriendly habits. Like the old voice plans, they still force us to estimate our data usage and penalize us if we go over. That means most of us will buy more data than we  use.

Verizon charges $15 per GB if a customer goes over their allotment, two to three times the cost of buying data on a plan. A better idea is to sell data on a continuously decreasing cost based on how much is used, eliminating the need to monitor usage.

Another scam from some of the carriers is their phone insurance plans provided by Assurion, a company with thousands of negative online reviews.

I insured my grandson’s iPhone 5c based on a sales pitch from the online Verizon salesman when buying the phone. It cost $7.95 per month. When I had to use the insurance, I learned the deductible was $140, something the salesman never mentioned. To add insult to injury, the replacement phone was a poorly refurbished unit whose battery drained in three hours. Assurion replaced it a second time, but I immediately cancelled my insurance and bought Apple’s AppleCare+ that cost $100 for two years and $79 to replace the 5c phone ($99 for an iPhone 6), with no monthly charge.

Asurion then came back and tried to assess a $500 charge, saying the returned defective phone still had its find-my-iPhone feature enable, which it did not.

Now that we’ve seen how effective Apple has been in wresting control of cellular from the carriers to our benefit, let’s see if it can do something about the cable companies. The new Apple TV is the first step in weaning us away from expensive monthly cable bills, replacing it with purchase on demand, so we pay only for what we want to watch.


Several months back I reviewed Uber and described how much I liked using it. In fact, I compared it to having a driver at your disposal, being able to call for a ride whenever needed.

But there’s another side to Uber that surfaced last week. I first learned of it when a good friend of mine posted her harrowing Uber experience on Facebook. There’s nothing like hearing a story from someone you know well and trust to give you pause.

I’ve worked with Vikki Pachera, a highly respected technology executive in Silicon Valley, for more than 20 years. What she says carries a lot of weight with me and with others that know her.

Vikki, who lives in Los Gatos, was in San Francisco for the day a couple of weeks ago meeting with clients, when she took an Uber from the Potrero Hill area to the Caltrain station to catch a train back to the South Bay. The trip was just a couple of miles and should have been about a 10-minute ride.

When she got into the Uber car, she said the driver drove in the wrong direction — onto heavily congested Interstate 280 rather than taking the surface streets, which would have been more direct and much faster. In fact, his GPS instructed him not to take I-280.

When Vikki questioned him, she said he became hostile and began what would be a tirade that lasted the duration of the trip.

Once on the freeway, she said he drove like a maniac, traveling along the far right shoulder at 35 mph, passing cars on his left and then suddenly cutting across three lines of traffic to the far left lane. Vikki said the driver screamed and ranted and threatened to let her off on the freeway. She said she tried calling her husband, but that upset the driver even more.

When I spoke with Vikki, she explained how harrowing and scary the experience was. She realized she was in the car with someone who was clearly mentally unstable and her life was at stake. Finally, when the driver arrived three blocks from her destination Vikki said he stopped the car and told her to get out.

Pachera immediately shared her experience on Twitter. Uber responded by sending her a link to file a complaint and later refunded her $5.

I contacted Uber and a representative told me, “We would never want a rider to feel this way; this type of behavior from a partner-driver is unacceptable. As soon as we became aware of this situation, we began looking into this and have reached out to the customer to understand what may have happened here.”

Vikki said she received a voicemail and then an email nearly a day later, after her story was aired on the local ABC news television.

The Uber representative told me the driver has had no other complaints, although she wouldn’t tell me how long he has been a driver. He has been suspended pending an investigation.

Vikki, who had been a frequent user of Uber, has disabled the Uber app and told me she would never use the service again. Instead she would now use taxis, where the drivers must pass police checks and have their name and medallion numbers on clear display.

She was very disappointed that Uber did not call back on the day this occurred, and described Uber’s response as mechanized, impersonal and uncaring.

Uber makes a point of comparing its screening to that of taxi drivers, and contends that it is equally severe and offers some anecdotal stories how some taxi drivers could not pass their screening. But clearly, many cities, including San Francisco, are looking into Uber’s screening process, which unlike taxis, does not use the police in the vetting process.

Uber provided this link that describes its screening practice and the criteria to hire drivers:

What this and other stories point out is that passengers should take precautions when they get into a car with a stranger.

• Always have your cellphone fully charged and accessible; it’s your lifeline if you need help.

• Texting for help is better than calling, which can create a confrontation with the driver. Or try calling a friend, allowing that person to eavesdrop on the conversation.

• Turn on your video recorder, which will also record dialogue.

• Avoid UberX, the lowest-priced option with smaller cars, at night. The condition of UberX cars, owned by the drivers, varies widely, with many passengers reporting some are not in good condition. And, when the car arrives to pick you up, don’t get in it if it’s unkempt, old or in poor condition, or if the driver seems a bit off. In short, trust your intuition and your instincts before you get into the car, whether it’s Uber or a taxi.


I thought I’d provide some background on how I evaluate and review products, with the goal of helping you make intelligent purchase decisions.

It’s become much more difficult to make a buying decision with so many new products being introduced each week, many of them doing new things, some claiming to be the best, and some making unsubstantial claims to gain attention. That’s why it’s so important to research a new product before you buy.

I find that many products I test often have weaknesses, hidden costs or issues that only become obvious after using them for a while. It could be the complexity of setup, a poor user interface or being underpowered.

A good example is the previous generations of Samsung Galaxy phones that had terrific specs, but had been laden with their own non-removable software that made the phone confusing and hard to use. Microsoft’s original Surface RT tablet was touted as a breakthrough product, yet was incompatible with most software, had a short battery life, was underpowered, and suffered from a poor interface.

To learn before you buy, begin with product reviews. There are both good and bad reviewers and review sites, ranging from insightful to snarky, some of the latter aiming to gain clicks through controversy, rather than providing serious analysis.

A few form opinions without even trying the product, just serving as an echo chamber based on other reviews. Gizmodo is one of those poor sites. In contrast, Engadget, The Verge, Pocket-Lint, and Re/code (now part of The Verge), each have serious reviewers and generally do a very good job.

For more specific products, I trust Digital Photography Review, Steve Huff, Reid Reviews, Ken Rockwell, and Image-Resource for camera reviews; Stereophile, InnerFidelity, and Headroom for music equipment reviews; the user reviews on and iLounge for Apple products; and Tom’s Hardware for reviews of computer equipment.

Among the national media, the Wall Street Journal has an excellent technology staff with thoughtful reviews from Joanna Stern and others. Ed Baig of USA Today, Harry McCracken of Fast Company, and Katie Bohert and Walt Mossberg of Re/code are all insightful and unbiased. The New York Times reviewer, Farhad Manjoo, can be insightful, but a little quirky. David Pogue of Yahoo is an entertaining writer, but is ethically challenged, such as when he was reprimanded for reviewing products from companies where he had business interests. And too often his egotism gets in the way of the facts.

But even the good reviews need to be judged carefully. Every reviewer has his or her own biases, weighing the importance of a product’s attributes differently from what might be important to you, and may not always understand the trade-offs.

For example, a recent review of a Motorola G Phone praised its low cost but criticized the display, stating that while it was excellent, it was not equal to an iPhone. But the iPhone is twice the price, and the reviewer never explained the trade-off of price to display resolution or how one affects the other.

The best reviews are those that don’t simply judge how many features the product has, but how suitable the product is to use and how good a balance there is among functionality, usability and cost.

I’ve always used the product before I write a review. Many companies will lend a sample for a few weeks. Those that don’t, aren’t reviewed, which affects what products I’ve covered. Apple, AT&T, Epson, Fujitsu, Canon, Garmin, Pentax, Casio, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, Acura, Ford, GM, Hyundai, Mazda, Plantronics, Audi and others have been very supportive over the past decade.

However, Microsoft, Nikon, Sony, Fitbit, Jawbone, Google and Tesla have been unresponsive. When I’ve reviewed any of these products I had to buy it or borrow one from another reviewer.

I recommend you do the same — try before you buy. You will not have access to PR firms sending you products, but fortunately, you can buy online or in many stores. Try and return if you don’t like it.

Even more important than expert opinions are the customer reviews posted online. Reviews can tell you about a product’s longevity and the quality of support from the manufacturer. Good sources for reviews, which I often check after writing my column’s first draft, include some of the sites noted above and, most notably, Amazon.

With products becoming so complex, their longevity and ability to be repaired becomes important, but this can be difficult to determine on a new product. Few companies make specific repairs, and instead replace an entire part of the product, meaning that it’s difficult to use independent repair shops. For example, Apple replaces the complete display assembly when the iPhone 6 has just a faulty home button.

When I write a review I’ll often try contacting the company, much as a customer would. How difficult is it to reach someone for help? Does the product come with a phone number or email address? Does their website make it easy to get help? Although increasingly rare, a product with a toll-free phone number right on the product is a sign of good customer support.

What is the company’s policy on early defects? Does it replace a defective product with a brand new one or with a refurbished unit? You should not expect to buy a new product only to have to replace it with a used one a week later. If you discover a defect within the first few weeks, it’s better just to return the product and buy a new one than get a refurbished replacement.

That’s why I’d much prefer a company that stands behind its products by making it easy to get them fixed.

I would buy an Apple product before one from Dell, HP or Lenovo, as good as they are. With an Apple I can walk into one of their stores to have it fixed, often the same day. The alternative is to be without your computer or phone for a week. So look for companies with local service or a one- to two-day turnaround.

Judging a product based on where it’s made is no longer indicative of its quality. Almost all consumer electronics products are made in China. Quality varies by the specific design and the manufacturer rather than the country.

As I’ve been on the flip side, developing products for companies, I know that products are released before they are perfected, with potential for returns from a defect in the design or manufacturing. I would show a little forgiveness as long as the company sent me a replacement quickly. It usually takes a couple of months for a product to be in the hands of thousands of customers to really know its issues.

With a careful, methodical approach, you can be adept at making the right buying decisions. And if you can’t decide, do nothing. There will be something similar out a few months later. Just remember, a technology product is only useful if it does something you want done, and should never add more complications to your life.