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Explained: How taxi drivers in Mumbai manipulated the Ola app to dupe customers

The Mumbai Police found that at least 40 cab drivers had taken advantage of a glitch in an outdated version of the Ola app to con passengers. How did the scam work? Didn't anyone complain?

Written by Mohamed Thaver , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai | Updated: December 3, 2020 12:06:26 pm
Ola scam, Mumbai Ola scam, Ola cab drivers scam, Mumbai Ola, Ola fraud, Ola news, Indian ExpressAn Ola spokesperson refused to comment on the issue. (File Photo)

On November 1, the Mumbai Police arrested three Ola cab drivers for allegedly conning several passengers by manipulating the mobile application to add more kilometres to the destination, thereby increasing the fare. The police found that at least 40 cab drivers had taken advantage of a glitch in an outdated version of the app to con customers.

An Ola spokesperson refused to comment on the issue.

What is the case registered by the Mumbai Police?

The crime branch (Unit I) arrested three cab drivers, including one Rajesh Acharya, who is alleged to be the mastermind of the scam, on November 1. The police said the accused found a glitch in an outdated Ola app. They manipulated it in such a way that extra kilometres were added to the distance covered by the cab, thereby leading to higher fares for customers.

How did the Ola drivers manage to manipulate the system?

Acharya, who was earlier a cab driver but has recently given up driving, told the police he found the glitch in the old Ola app.

On the driver interface of the app, the cab would appear on a bridge in the GPS map even if in reality it was below the bridge. So, whenever the cab was going under a long overpass, bridge or flyover, the drivers would switch off the app. Once they had crossed the bridge and taken either a left or right off the road, they would switch on the app again. The map that earlier thought the vehicle was on the bridge, would then look for a route that would connect the bridge to the current location of the cab. The re-routed course would be longer than the one the driver had taken.

For example, a cab driver travelling below the Eastern Freeway would switch off his app. As per the app, he is on the Freeway, an elevated road, while he is actually on the road below. He would drive for 2-3 kilometres with the app off, reach Govandi and switch on the app again. The app, which assumed the cab was above the freeway, would consider the route from above the freeway to Govandi which would entail going all the way back to Wadala, thus adding around 10 kilometres to the trip. In reality however, the cab would have covered a distance of just 2 km.

The drivers operated on the Mumbai airport to Panvel route and during one trip, they would stop at three or four locations below the bridge thus adding several kilometres to the trip.

Why did they prefer the Airport – Panvel route?

Generally, these cab drivers would wait outside the Mumbai airport and take rides to Panvel. The reason for this was the route was the longest and had several bridges and flyovers along the way, helping them increase the fare. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

How did they manage to get rides for these particular routes considering the aggregators can send them to any destination?

They managed to get rides to particular routes by using the ‘home’ option provided by cab aggregators. This option allows drivers to find trips to their destination of choice. So, in spite of some of these drivers staying in south Mumbai, they would put the home option during the day and show their home location as Panvel. Hence, they would only be given rides to Panvel by the system.

On an average, how much cost escalation took place? Is there any clarity on how many cases travellers were scammed?

As per the police, the fare increased to as much as double the amount. If the fare was Rs 610 from Panvel, the fare in the app showed Rs 1,240.

While so far the accused have told the police that they were doing this since December 2019, the police suspect this has been going on longer.

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Did passengers complain about this?

Whenever passengers complained about the high fare, the drivers would tell them to make the payment and take up the issue with the company, claiming they were merely drivers and did not know how the system worked. However, in several cases, passengers from the airport carrying luggage would end up making payments but wouldn’t reach out to the company later.

In some cases, the drivers were fined by the company when there were complaints from the passengers, an officer said.

When did the drivers discover the glitch? How did they manage not to get the Ola app updated?

The police are currently investigating the source of the glitch. So far, Acharya has told them that he found out about it. He told the police that since December last year, he would ensure his app did not automatically update by making changes in the settings.

So, every time there was an update to patch the glitches, the drivers would not get it. This ensured they could keep using this particular method, which they called “firing up the app”.

How was the case solved?

The Mumbai Police received a tip off about Ola drivers outside the airport carrying out this fraud. Police officers acting as dummy passengers took these rides and kept an eye on the how the app was switched off a couple of times and the hike in the rates. Following several rides, the FIR was registered by the crime branch and three persons were arrested.

What is the current status of the case?

The Mumbai Police has summoned senior executives of Ola to understand how the system works and if enough measures are in place to ensure this does not take place again. The officers said they are also trying to find out if someone else was aware of the glitch in the system and the fact that it was being misused, considering some passengers had complained to the cab aggregator.

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