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by Matt Alderton | April 17, 2015
Ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft -- also known as transportation network companies, or TNCs -- are popular among meeting planners and attendees when they're traveling. A new white paper, however, gives cause for concern.

Published by the City of Houston's Administration & Regulatory Affairs Department, the paper presents the results of an investigation into the background checks that Uber and Lyft conduct on their drivers, conducted after it was discovered that a Houston Uber driver accused of raping a passenger served 14 years in federal prison.

The city reportedly conducted its own background checks on drivers already approved to drive for Uber and Lyft and found that some had prior criminal histories, including charges for indecent exposure, DWI, possession of a controlled substance, prostitution, fraud, battery, assault, robbery, aggravated robbery, possession of marijuana, theft, sale of alcohol to a minor, traffic of counterfeit goods, trademark counterfeit, possession of narcotics, and driving with a suspended license.

"Despite assurances from TNCs that commercial background companies conduct criminal background checks at least comparable to the ones run by municipalities, but usually even more thorough, in fact these background checks are incomplete," Houston concluded in the white paper, which says the commercial background checks TNCs typically lack fingerprinting, which means they more closely resemble credit checks than criminal background searches.

"Commercial background checks are based on the personal information of the applicant, including name and social security number," the white paper explained. "These companies typically use the applicant's social security number to identify past counties of residence. The company then searches the courthouse records of these and surrounding counties. However, as these checks do not search every county, they create a huge potential gap where crimes go undetected."

The public-safety campaign "Who's Driving You?" -- an initiative of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, which represents taxi and limo drivers, who compete with TNCs and have vocally opposed them in jurisdictions around the country -- applauded Houston's investigation and critique.

"Houston is absolutely right to raise the alarm over Uber's and Lyft's inadequate background checks," said Dave Sutton, spokesperson for the "Who's Driving You?" campaign. "These corporations are routinely underinvesting in proper criminal background checks. Cities have every right to say, 'Enough is enough,' and put these companies on notice that safety, not corporate business profits, comes first."

Despite criticism in Houston, TNCs maintain that they have exacting standards for their drivers, and conduct thorough criminal background checks on all of them.

"Uber uses the best data possible when conducting driver partner screenings," spokeswoman Debbee Hancock told the Houston Chronicle's Lisa Falkenberg. "We work with experts who review a driver's background against local, state and federal criminal records - going to the source of the records rather than relying on databases that may not always be up to date."