Uber customers gripe to feds about spam

Uber customers gripe to feds about spam

Dozens of people in Austin, Texas, complained to federal regulators in early May that Uber was spamming their phones with unwanted text messages as it sought passage of a ballot measure in the city.

At least 35 people complained that the company was sending multiple texts to their phones, with some alleging that the company did not comply with their requests to stop, according to a batch of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) complaints obtained by The Hill through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. 

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“I signed up to use their ridesharing service a handful of times, not to be spammed with directions about which way they want me to vote in an election,” wrote one Austin resident, whose name was redacted. 

Complaints from Austin residents on social media received news coverage at the time. It eventually led to a pending lawsuit from a person opposing the ballot measure, alleging that Uber violated parts of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act with its outreach.

Despite the industry’s aggressive tactics and millions of dollars in advocacy, voters rejected the measure pushed by Uber and Lyft that would have undone some ordinances passed by the city council requiring fingerprinting during driver background checks, among other things. 

Both companies have since left Austin, making it one of the largest markets in the U.S. where the companies do not operate. 

Uber did not respond to a request for comment about the dozens of FCC complaints. But after the lawsuit was filed in May, Uber released a short statement calling the allegations “meritless” and saying the company takes “great precautions” in order to comply with the law. 

“This is my personal cell phone number, so if I am reading the FCC guidelines right, it is illegal for them to contact me this way” one person from Austin wrote in a complaint to the FCC.

Another person complained about the trouble in being taken off the list. 

“If there was any issue removing me from the call list, they did not say that. Today I received a text on the same issue," the person said. 

Without consent, nearly all prerecorded and autodialed calls and texts to a person’s mobile phone are banned by the FCC. Political robocalls are generally permitted to landline phone numbers, but that exception does not apply to mobile phones. 

Uber declined to explain why it believes the complaints are without merit, but its terms and conditions note that users agree to receive “informational text messages as part of the normal business operation of your use of the service.”

One of the lawyers who helped bring the case against Uber said he hopes the case defines the scope of what a multibillion-dollar company can do with a person’s cellphone number.

“Uber's lawyers will have to torture and twist the language of their own terms and conditions to convince a federal court that what they sent is either ‘informational’ or part of 'normal business operations,' " attorney Lee Thweatt said. 

Uber successfully fought a similar robocall lawsuit last year in New York after it waged a call campaign during local elections. The Federal Trade Commission received more than 300 do-not-call list complaints against Uber at the time, according to another batch of documents provided to The Hill. 

That case was slightly different since Uber was accused of robocalling people’s home phones without consent. A judge threw that case out because political calls to landline are exempt from the rules. 

That exemption does not apply to cellphones.

The FCC receives tens of thousands of complaints every year about robocalls and acts on very few of them. Since late 2014, it has received more than 81,000 complaints. 

“The FCC receives many complaints and comments that do not involve violations of the Communications Act or any FCC rule or order,” the FCC said in a note accompanying the FOIA documents. 

All complaints to the FCC made against Uber going back to 2015 are below: