It was only when Tansy Gorman heard the click of the car doors locking that she realised the man behind the wheel was not her Uber driver.
“We were just kind of chatting, and then he said, ‘Where are you off to?’ And I said, ‘Shouldn’t you know that?'”
A fortnight ago, the 23-year-old university student left her friends at a bar in Collingwood, booked an Uber and waited on the corner of Smith and Gertrude streets in Fitzroy for her ride.
“The car pulled up and it was the same as the description of the car that was meant to be coming, a white Toyota. And the driver said, ‘Hey I’m your ride’. My phone was in my bag and I jumped in … I didn’t think anything of it.”
But the man inside had no intention of taking her home safely.
“He kept looking at me and going, ‘Why are you so tense? You seem scared, why are you scared? I picked you up because I liked what I saw’.
“It was really scary … I thought there’s every chance that I’m going to be at least assaulted if not raped, let’s just make sure it’s not dead.”
‘He lunged towards me’
Emma* was leaving a restaurant in Melbourne’s west in the early hours of a Sunday morning in late 2018 but was struggling to get a taxi.
She booked an Uber and watched on the app as the driver on the map travelled towards her. At the same time a car pulled up and the driver said: “Uber?”
“I regrettably said ‘Uber for Emma?’ to which he said, ‘yes’.
She was one minute into the journey home when she got a call from her actual Uber driver asking where she was.
“I turned to the man in the car to let him know that I was in the wrong vehicle. He assured me I would get home safe.”
But then he insisted he was coming home with her. He laughed as he told her she was confused, that she’d had too much to drink and that she wanted him.
“Once we pulled up outside my home, I thought I had managed to make him realise that this was some kind of mistake.”
When he tried to turn down a dark street, she threatened to call police and finally agreed to give him her phone number if he would unlock the door.
“But before I could get out he lunged towards me, pinning me to the seat and sticking his tongue in my mouth. He grabbed at me. I was unable to push him away so reached for the door and slid sideways out of the car.
“I walked a couple of blocks home and bawled my eyes out as soon as I was unlocking the door to my home. I was unable to comprehend the severity of what had occurred for several days. My initial instinct was to blame myself.”
The trip, which would normally take four minutes, took 20. Emma called police a few days later but was told there wasn’t much that could be done without a number plate. About five weeks later she went to police again and made a full report.
She was terrified the man, who knew her address, could come back to her home. Police investigated and tracked down the alleged offender but he denied everything. A lack of evidence meant it could not be taken any further.
“Now, I order an Uber as a last resort as I feel quite anxious about it. I tend not to go out as much anymore,” she says. “It changed my lifestyle.”
‘Can you please open the door? Please?’
During Tansy’s tense 20-minute journey, she made small talk with the driver, trying to keep a friendly tone. She lied about where she studied and said she had a boyfriend who was tracking her movements.
“And I was like, ‘Please, promise me you’re never going to touch me. And he paused and was like, ‘OK, I promise’. And then we ended up getting to our destination. And I was like, ‘Can you please open the door? Please?’.”
The driver eventually let her out and Tansy hid beside another house as she watched the man make a U-turn and drive off.
She reported what happened to police that night.
‘It might feel safe, but you are quite vulnerable’
These stories aren’t isolated.
In recent years, taxi and rideshare services have been considered the safer option for women getting home after a night out, says University of Melbourne criminology lecturer Dr Bianca Fileborn.
“For many women, you avoid walking and taking public transport because it is perceived as being less safe,” she says.
“Unfortunately we are starting to see anecdotal evidence that people are taking advantage of the rideshare phenomenon as a way of perpetrating by pretending to be rideshare drivers.
“It might feel safe, but you are quite vulnerable, especially if you are by yourself. You are in the vehicle, you don’t have control over where it’s going, especially at night.”
Police haven’t seen a sharp increase in these type of offences, but acknowledge they are occurring.
Recent incidents in Victoria
“With the increased use and popularity of a range of rideshare services comes an increased opportunity for offenders to fraudulently pose as drivers in order to commit a range of offences,” a Victoria Police spokeswoman said.
“Because the vehicles used in these rideshare services tend to be private vehicles, and don’t have the significant markings of a taxi service, it can be harder for users to distinguish if the vehicle approaching them is the rideshare vehicle they have requested.”
Although there is little that rideshare companies can do to stop predators posing as drivers, concerns about safety have plagued the industry.
Shebah, a rideshare service which only uses female drivers, started in Australia in 2017. While price was once the main competitive factor in the rideshare market, the company’s chief executive Georgina McEnroe says safety will be the next “battleground” for operators.
“I think too we have become very used to getting into somebody’s car and assuming we will be safe. And most of the time we are. But it is a kind of reminder that a car is a very intimate space, it can be locked and when things go wrong they can go very, very wrong.”
She believes there needs to be a national register of drivers who have been removed from platforms so if they continue to reoffend, the pattern is recognised.
‘Focus on the guys out there looking for opportunities’
In the wake of their experiences, Emma and Tansy say they want women to know they can come forward and report similar incidents without feeling that they were at fault.
“Less focus on my actions … more focus on the guys out there looking for opportunities to force themselves on women,” Emma says.
Police encourage anyone who has been through a similar experience to report it, regardless of the type of offence.
A spokeswoman for Uber said safety was “at the heart of everything we do” and urged customers to make sure they are getting into the right car with the right driver by matching the license plate, car make and model, and photo of the driver with information on the app.
*Not her real name
Anyone needing support can contact the Centre Against Sexual Assault on 1800 806 292, or the national sexual assault helpline 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
Simone is a crime reporter for The Age. Most recently she covered breaking news for The Age, and before that for The Australian in Melbourne.