Police say that people are risking their safety by travelling in cars with drivers who could be sexual predators. Thousands of Britons are earning between £40 and £200 a night by offering illegal taxi services on social media, prompting police warnings.
The Times found 18 Facebook groups with a total of more than 50,000 members where people advertised or sought “lifts” for cash from drivers without taxi or private hire licenses. Many lifts drivers are students and others are in their teens or twenties. They ferry people to and from clubs and house parties, taking their highest earnings on New Year’s Eve.
Drivers and passengers often claim that licensed taxis are too expensive or are unavailable on busy nights but the police warn that clients risk travelling in unsafe or uninsured cars with drivers who could be sexual predators.
Drivers could face prosecution and fines or points on their licence, although a barrister who specialises in taxi licensing law warned that councils would not take the matter seriously until someone was “raped or murdered” in the back of a stranger’s car.
Facebook groups where members offer paid lifts include “Bournemouth & Poole town lifts”, with more than 7,300 members. One 22-year-old member, a student, said that on New Year’s Eve last year he made £250 “doing lifts”. His normal rate is £20 for rides of five to ten miles, or £5 each for four passengers. Others charge £5 for six miles.
Elsewhere, the Jersey Lifts group has 18,000 members, with fares discussed including £10 for the 2.8-mile journey from Five Oaks to central Saint Helier on Boxing Day and £20 for the 4.5 miles from Saint Helier to Saint Clement on Christmas morning. Local taxi drivers say that inexperienced drivers use the group to tout for illegal business.
Administrators for both groups said they did not tolerate illegal lifts for profit and banned those breaking the rules.
Payment is mostly negotiated in private messages, although fares appear to be significantly higher than the 45p per mile that HM Revenue & Customs says is the cost of petrol and running a car, but they do undercut local cab fares.
Drivers carrying passengers for a fee without a taxi or private hire licence are committing a number of offences. Insurers permit private passengers to contribute towards petrol and running costs but cover is invalidated if drivers make a profit, so there would be no cover in the event of an accident, with the driver personally liable. Lifts drivers are not screened as licensed drivers are.
Police forces in Dorset and Jersey have issued multiple warnings about social media “lifts”, saying that passengers are at risk. Taxi drivers’ associations elsewhere have also warned of the dangers of lifts, with licensed drivers in Hull complaining of “boy racers” picking up “drunk girls”. The Jersey police previously warned that drivers offering lifts had included disqualified motorists; a man “known to befriend young vulnerable females”; and a “person detained for mental health assessment on a number of occasions”.
In addition to illegal lifts some motorists, including those motivated by environmental concerns, use Facebook groups to offer free lifts, or for a fair share of the petrol costs when they would otherwise be travelling with empty passenger seats.
Stephen McCaffrey, head of Taxi Driver Defence Barristers, said: “This practice is unlawful unless the driver, vehicle and operation are properly licensed.” He added: “The scandal will break when someone is raped or killed in the back of one of these cars. The story won’t be that it happened, but that the authorities knew about it but didn’t do anything.”
A moderator for the Bournemouth and Poole group said: “Our page isn’t illegal. It is explained on the page and if anyone breaks the rules they will be banned. None of us administrators have made a profit from this page and never will.”
A moderator for Jersey Lifts said: “It is designed to share lifts around the island. We are aware that some people ask for money and understand the potential risks in doing so, so when we see any such posts we delete them or ban them.”
Facebook said it was investigating to assess whether any content on these and other groups constituted illegal activity and violated its terms.
A 22-year-old student who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity has been giving “lifts” in his home town of Bournemouth for more than a year. His best night was on New Year’s Eve last year, when he made about £250 working from the early evening until 2am. He usually charges £20 for journeys of five to ten miles. That increases to £30 in the early hours.
He uses groups on Facebook, including “Bournemouth & Poole town lifts” but also posts status updates advertising his service on his timeline, preferring to drive people from among his 3,700 friends on the social network rather than complete strangers.
“People want lifts because it’s cheaper, but also because cabs are often booked up in the evening,” he said. “They don’t want to have to decide in advance what time to go home.
“I think it makes people safer because often cabs won’t pick drunk people up, so we’re their only option.”
He said he knows that the practice is illegal but believes there is little risk of punishment because he can tell any police officers who stop him that he is doing a favour for a friend.
• Illegal taxi drivers thrive on Facebook – not just in the UK but also in Sweden.