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Your Mobile Apps Are More Dangerous Than You Think – Cosmopolitan.com

Your Mobile Apps Are More Dangerous Than You Think – Cosmopolitan.com

Matt Chase

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One Saturday night last year, Maria M*, 25, was at a dive bar in downtown New York City celebrating a friend’s birthday. It one was of those great parties where you blink and it’s suddenly 2 a.m. By then, Maria was tired, so she ordered an Uber — an occasional splurge on late nights, although she mostly tried to take the subway. Five minutes later, her phone buzzed; the driver was outside. A little tipsy, Maria walked to the curb.

“Are you my Uber?” she asked the guy behind the wheel of a car that was just pulling up.

“Yes,” he replied.

She got in but soon became aware that he was turning onto the highway in the wrong direction — north, instead of south, toward her Brooklyn home. When she asked why, the driver mumbled something about taking a different route. Strange, she thought. “But I wasn’t going to argue with him,” she recalls. Maybe he knew a shortcut. As they whizzed past exit after exit, though, Maria realized she hadn’t checked his license plate against the one provided by Uber — and that he likely didn’t work for Uber at all.

He demanded she hand over her cell phone. “Be quiet or else I’ll rape you,” he hissed. He claimed to have a gun. Stunned and terrified, Maria thrust her designer handbag, jewelry, and ATM card on the front seat, lying that her cheap gold hoop earrings were expensive and reciting her pin number. “I thought he was going to do something terrible to me and then leave me on the side of the road,” she says. “I thought I was going to die.”

It felt like hours later when he finally pulled off the highway in Harlem, miles from her neighborhood. “Before I take you home, I’m going to do some pussy work on you,” he said. Panicked, she focused on getting out of the car. At a stoplight, she threw open the door and sprinted into the night.

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With no wallet or phone, she finally managed to flag down a cop car. The policemen — perhaps assuming she was just a lost drunk girl — didn’t file a report, but they did put her in a yellow cab that ferried her safely home, where she had to run into her apartment for cash.

A few weeks later, Maria was back on Uber.

Blind To Stranger Danger

The digital revolution has overhauled human behavior in some pretty mind-blowing ways, perhaps none more surprising than this: We’ve become so conditioned to trust strangers with handling various details of our lives that we don’t even bother to confirm that they’re the right strangers.

A decade ago, most women would have thought twice before summoning someone random to their home to put together IKEA furniture, walk their dog, vacuum their bedroom, or stay in their bedroom. But tech services have introduced a revolving door of helpful strangers — not to mention eager lovers — into our worlds. They materialize with a few clicks, ostensibly ready to fulfill everything from urgent practical demands to deep emotional needs. Even moms, who used to warn “Don’t talk to strangers,” now order them up to babysit via apps like Sittercity.

The convenience is seductive — and ubiquitous. Americans spend an estimated $57.6 billion annually on the on-demand economy. Thousands of businesses now provide goods and services on-call, says Jeremiah Owyang, founder of Crowd Companies. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 72 percent of American adults had tried at least one such service.

“Our norms are changing,” explains Colin Strong, global head of behavioral science at Ipsos, a market-research firm, and author of Humanizing Big Data.

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“We see other people using these apps, and it rapidly becomes acceptable.” Home- and ride-sharing are often cheaper than alternatives, which lures millennials. But people also increasingly value experiences over material things, says Strong. And as we rush to embrace the novel — to meet new people, go to new places, try new things — concerns about safety can seem quaint.

It doesn’t hurt that on-demand apps have a sheen of Silicon Valley efficiency. It’s easy to see them as clean-scrubbed Craigslists, with workers and users who are vetted and benign. That’s a mirage, say experts — and in some cases, a mistake. “The sharing economy is trying to turn strangers into friends,” says Lucas Coffman, PhD, a visiting associate professor of economics at Harvard University and chief behavioral officer at money-sharing platform Frank. A driver’s photo or a date’s profile can “make us feel a sense of familiarity,” he says. “But these companies are not doing a perfect job.”

“We’re on a major learning curve right now,” adds Katie L. Greer, an internet-safety expert and former intelligence analyst for the Massachusetts State Police. “Sometimes, because of how convenient these apps are, we forget the most basic privacy and safety principles.”

The Cost Of Easy Access

But blowing off those principles can come at a high price. There have been reports of hundreds of alleged instances of physical and sexual assault by ride-hailing drivers over the past few years. In 2015, a man was found guilty of using the home-sharing site Couchsurfing.com to lure and rape a 16-year-old girl, and he has been accused of doing the same to more than 15 other women. A spokesperson for the housecleaning app Handy said that in 2016, more than 500 users submitted substantiated claims of theft to the company. (This represents just .04 percent of bookings that year.)

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Meanwhile, in the last few years, impostor Uber drivers like Maria’s have been linked to sexual assaults and robberies all over the country. Uber itself has raised an alarm about drivers — some with homemade Uber signs in the window — impersonating its workers at airports in New York.

A Pew Research Center survey found that 42 percent of women who use dating apps and sites, meanwhile, have experienced harassment or felt uncomfortable. In the UK, the number of people reporting that they’ve been raped on a first date by someone they met on a dating app or site increased six-fold from 2009 to 2014. And in the U.S., the FBI says that romance scams, often perpetuated via dating sites, are the costliest internet crime for individuals.

Still, for digital natives who have rarely hailed an old-school taxi or stayed in a traditional hotel, let alone met a guy at a bar, surrendering on-demand convenience remains unthinkable.

Several years ago, Elizabeth A.*, 33, went on a couple of dates with a match from OkCupid. One night, when a restaurant they tried to eat at had a two-hour wait, “he just became kind of a wacko,” she recalls, “muttering under his breath that I ruined the date and ‘fucked everything up.’” Elizabeth was scared enough that she — like Maria — fled his car at an intersection, in heels. Several days later, she received a text: “What was up with you the other night???”

She deleted her OkCupid account, but she still uses Lyft, Uber, Airbnb, Wag!, Handy, Rover, and Postmates. Her reasoning: “The people I’ve interacted with on those services are working for a company. I see a distinction between using the sharing economy to get from point A to point B and a mobile app to meet men.”

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Tuning In To Your Gut

Regardless of how vetted a person seems, women need to trust their instincts, cautions Katie L. Greer. “If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.”

That’s a fact that Emily A.*, 28, wishes she’d considered. On her way to a family Thanksgiving two years ago, she and her fiancé stopped in Palm Springs to break up the drive from L.A. to Arizona. She used a home-sharing app to find a cute, well-reviewed guesthouse for just $60 a night.

When they arrived around 8 p.m., there was “a creepy vibe,” recalls Emily. The family in the main house stared at them through the window, and none of them looked like the profile picture she’d seen online. But she brushed off the bad feeling — it was only one night.

Then around 2 a.m., someone rattled the door. “We were freaked out,” says Emily. A guy outside asked, “Is someone in there?” He claimed to have forgotten he’d rented the cottage. Emily was so shaken that after she heard him drive off, she and her fiancé packed up their stuff and left. (When she complained, she recouped her $60 and got credit for a future stay.)

Many larger platforms can’t run background checks on every single user — if they do them at all — so they rely on their communities to post feedback and send up red flags. But hosts with hundreds of five-star reviews don’t exist everywhere, and it’s easy for users to prioritize location and cost over ratings. Companies that provide a set paid service, like Uber, Lyft, and Handy, do typically run background checks. “And many platforms have done a lot to improve the number of clues you have about the person on the other end of the transaction,” says Arun Sundararajan, PhD, professor of information, operations, and management sciences at NYU’s Stern School of Business and author of The Sharing Economy. “But this is still not a hotel where, say, Hilton is responsible for your experience from beginning to end. The reality is, there is more burden on you to find a safe provider.”

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Ironically, a second wave of techy services is emerging to help ease that burden. One, Scamalytics, helps purge dating sites of scammers. A new Boston-based ride-hailing company called Safr employs predominantly female drivers and focuses on more robust and integrated background checks, including in-person interviews. Aste, a service that performs $30 independent background checks by professional investigators for online daters, was launched by Julie Nashawaty after she discovered that a guy she’d met on a dating app had been arrested for robbing a bank. (Since her service launched in January, 25 percent of its searches have turned up as catfish or scammers, she says.)

Bigger apps are also introducing new features: Uber lets passengers designate an intersection, rather than an address, as their destination, and Lyft’s new color-coded Amp device helps drivers and passengers find each other.

Still, though, your own vigilance may be your most important shield. Maria, for one, has devised some new rules for herself: “I know these apps are never going to be 100 percent foolproof, so I share my location with a bunch of friends.” (Uber lets riders do this directly from the app.)

And Emily has become more selective about home-sharing — looking for dedicated vacation rentals, professional photos, and many reviews — and only staying at someone else’s place if she’s traveling with another person. But she hasn’t been totally turned off. She’ll soon attend a wedding in upstate New York, “in the middle of nowhere,” she says, where there are no hotels. She’s already booked an Airbnb. “The place is a 15-minute walk from the wedding,” she reports. “It’s worth it for the convenience.”

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Conscious Convenience The Smartest Ways To Click

Mat Chase

By Emily C. Johnson

1. Check the Checks

Many on-demand businesses do only cursory background checks. Visit their sites to search for gold-standard policies that scan for social security numbers, state and federal docs, DMV records, a sex-offender registry presence, and any open or past lawsuits.

2. Study Reviews

When available, consider the quality and quantity of a provider’s reviews. If someone has raves but there are only three or four of them, steer clear. “Those could be from friends,” says Arun Sundararajan, PhD, author of The Sharing Economy. “Pick the person with 100 good reviews.”

3. Update Your Squad

Before you go anywhere or do anything with a stranger, call your BFF. Better yet, do it in front of your driver/ handyman/date, suggests Sundararajan. Say “Hey, I’m getting into a Juno right now” or “I hired a TaskRabbit to paint my kitchen, and he just arrived.”

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4. Guard Your Pics

“If you’re using the same photo on a dating app and your LinkedIn page, a reverse-image search can give a stranger your real name and workplace,” says Jordan Arnold, head of private-client services at K2 Intelligence, an investigative-services firm. Choose one shot exclusively for apps.

5. Chat Cautiously

By the time a driver drops you at the airport, he could know your full name, address and how long you’ll be away, says Arnold. And someone you let in your place (a grocery-delivery or furniture-assembly guy) could overhear that your roommate is out of town.

Secure Servers

Matt Chase

4 Apps Leading The Charge On Safety

By Emily C. Johnson

1. Safr

A new ride-share biz that vets its (mostly female) drivers with in-person interviews. Cars are tracked in real time; if a vehicle goes off course, Safr intervenes.

2. Zeel
In-home massage apps can sound sketchy (you, naked in your living room… with a random). But Zeel masseuses must be licensed and insured massage therapists, and they are all hyper-vetted in person.

3. Glamsquad
Before sending its hair and makeup stylists to your pad, the beauty service performs background checks and character evaluations and requires each pro to complete a 40-hour assessment program.

4. Rover
In addition to requiring a background check, the pet-care company vets each walker and sitter with testimonials and a pet-safety quiz (only 15 percent of applicants are approved).

* Names Have Been Changed

This article was originally published as “Danger, On Demand” in the July 2017 issue of Cosmopolitan. Click here to subscribe to the digital edition.

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