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Burner phones and canceled rides: How Uber steals drivers from Lyft

Uber’s attempts to undercut ride-sharing rival Lyft have been well-documented, but now the popular car-hailing app is fighting back at reports that its driver recruitment tactics are decidedly shady.

The Verge reported Tuesday that Uber hires street teams armed with burner phones and credit cards to request Lyft rides as a way of recruiting its competitor’s drivers. Uber calls the campaign Operation SLOG (Supplying Long-term Operations Growth), and detailed its recruitment efforts in a Tuesday blog post released just ahead of The Verge story.

Uber’s recruiters request Lyft rides using different phones and accounts to avoid detection. They use the trips to ask the drivers what they like and dislike about Lyft, and whether they would consider driving for Uber. The recruiters share screenshots of drivers they’ve attempted to recruit so that the same driver isn’t targeted over and over and tips off Lyft.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick took to Twitter Tuesday night to defend his company’s tactics. Kalanick said there’s nothing wrong with recruiting Lyft drivers on the job, and argued that Lyft employees do the same to Uber drivers. He also disputed The Verge’s report that Uber recruiters intentionally cancel Lyft ride requests to waste drivers’ time and cause frustration.

But this isn’t the first time Uber has been accused of ordering and canceling rides. Earlier this year, car-hailing app Gett said Uber was using similar tactics to recruit its drivers in New York. The company apologized, claiming the efforts were part of an overzealous campaign coordinated by its New York team. Turns out recruitment strategies are top-down—and national. Lyft then accused Uber employees of ordering and canceling more than 5,000 rides. Uber threw the accusation back, claiming that Lyft has done the same thing.

Uber isn’t doing anything illegal. Drivers are independent contractors who can work for any service, or all of them, if they want. But the tactics are shady. If Uber was a better company to work for, wouldn’t drivers choose them over Lyft without all the aggressive outreach? They’re not exactly unknown.

Uber needs to clean up its act—and its image. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe is joining the team next month to guide Uber’s next steps and may be able to convince Kalanick that his “capitalism at any cost” philosophy is off-putting at best.

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