FARGO - Ricky Marquart did the right thing. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of his graduation from West Fargo High School with old friends and classmates on June 14, he found himself in the Silver Dollar Bar early the next morning. So he ordered a Lyft ride from the app on his smartphone.
The driver, identified as Travis on the app, arrived promptly and drove Marquart home.
The ride took 13 minutes, from 2:21 a.m. until 2:34 a.m. on July 15, according to the receipt Marquart received on his phone.
It was seemingly an innocuous transaction, one that's repeated hundreds of thousands of times a day around the United States with the rise in popularity of ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber.
Except that when Marquart checked his phone later, he'd received another receipt from Lyft in addition to the one showing a $9.01 charge for the ride. The new receipt was for $150 and had a subject line titled "Lyft Damage Receipt." The charge was placed on the credit card Marquart entered on his Lyft account.
"What did you do?" Marquart's wife, Tiffany, asked him.
"Nothing. I just got a ride home," Ricky replied.
"Well, you must have done something. Did you throw up in his car? Did you spill some food?" Tiffany said.
"No. I didn't do anything. I swear," Ricky pleaded.
From there, things got increasingly interesting. From the investigation Tiffany did to discover the truth to battling with Lyft over the charge to finding out there is a phenomenon among some Lyft and Uber drivers to commit what has been deemed "vomit fraud" - faking damage to their vehicle and charging unwitting passengers up to $150 to cover it.
"Vomit fraud" is a growing problem in many parts of the country. The Miami Herald reported this summer that multiple Uber passengers are filing lawsuits after drivers falsely charged passengers, claiming they had to clean up vomit, urine, blood and other bodily fluids.
The Marquarts also discovered the police treat the fraud as a civil matter instead of a criminal one because of the way the ride services write user agreements, so they don't investigate. The Marquarts learned Lyft doesn't appear overly concerned its drivers are committing fraud. They also don't believe drivers who get caught face any repercussions.
"This guy tried to steal $150. We were lucky because we were able to figure it out and get our money back," Ricky said. "But how many other people are being taken advantage of? How does this get changed? Can citizens crack down on this? Who's going to help?"
Tiffany believed Ricky's innocence and immediately sent an email to Lyft customer service, saying that she believed their driver submitted a false damage claim. The company responded by sending a message saying the driver submitted photographic and anecdotal evidence of the damage. Lyft attached three photos.
"Per our terms of service, we charge a damage fee to help drivers repair, remediate, or clean affected areas of the vehicle," the email said. It also said Lyft "accidentally" made a mistake by charging $150 and reduced the fee to $50.
The pictures showed a vehicle, a gray Chevrolet Suburban or GMC Yukon (just as Ricky remembered), with something spread on the outside and a couple of different substances in the back seat.
"I looked at the pictures closely and said, 'That looks like nacho cheese sauce on the outside and puff popcorn and something else on the inside,'" Tiffany said. "I asked Ricky again, 'Are you sure you didn't eat anything on the ride home?' He said he didn't."
Tiffany is a compliance analyst with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of North Dakota, so her job (and part of her nature) is to dig into things and make sure they are correct. To investigate them.
"It wasn't about the money anymore," Tiffany said. "I was on a mission."
Tiffany looked more closely at the photos and saw blue and red neon lights in the background in one of them and the reflection of a red "Car Wash" sign in another. She recognized them as being on a Holiday Stationstore. So she called the nearest Holiday and explained the situation to the manager, asking if he could check the store's security camera footage early Sunday morning to see if the vehicle and its driver had stopped.
Before she received a callback, Tiffany showed the photos to a co-worker, who noticed another reflection in the SUV's window.
"She said, 'Right there. What's that green thing?' So I zoomed in and we both went 'That's the Space Aliens sign!" Tiffany said.
Now Tiffany knew the vehicle had stopped at the Holiday store on 45th Street near I-94 in south Fargo. She called the store, was put in contact with manager Travis Schiesser and explained in detail the situation to him. She even theorized as to what the Lyft driver had done - stopped at the store, bought some food, threw it on the outside and inside of the vehicle to make it look like a passenger made a mess and then ran the vehicle through the car wash to clean it.
Tiffany had an specific time she wanted Schiesser to check the video-about 2:50 a.m. Sunday morning-so the manager told her to stay on the phone while he looked.
"It was easy since she had the time narrowed down. So I started looking and almost immediately I see the vehicle pull up to the store. The driver gets out, comes in and buys nachos, puff popcorn and Mott's applesauce," Schiesser said. "He goes back out and, it gets tougher to see what he's doing because of the camera angle, but you can see him moving around, making motions. Then flashes go off, like he's taking pictures. He opens the door to the back seat and same thing, some flashes go off.
"He has an unlimited car wash pass, which he showed when he bought the items. So he gets in the vehicle and goes through the car wash. It's all there on tape."
Schiesser said company policy forbids him from sharing the video with anybody outside law enforcement. Phone calls to Holiday's corporate offices in the Twin Cities seeking permission to obtain the video were not returned.
But Tiffany had nailed the scenario, even filling in the blank that the second substance in the back seat was applesauce. It was clear the driver faked damage, took photos, submitted them to Lyft and asked for $150 reimbursement. Lyft put the charge on Ricky Marquart's credit card. Few, or no, questions asked.
Tiffany sent another email to Lyft on July 17 ("You can never actually talk to a real person, it's always emails," she said) accusing the company of not doing enough investigation on damage claims made by drivers.
"How can a company operate like this? ... How can you simply charge someone a damage fee and have no recourse for the customer against a false claim?" she wrote. "You need to seriously look at your policies as you are encouraging your drivers to file false damage claims because you make it so easy for them. I would like a response with the anecdotal evidence of the situation and information regarding how to file against a false damage claim."
She didn't receive a response. The only response the Marquarts received from Lyft after she sent her final email came only after The Forum contacted the company asking questions for this column. That email promised the Marquarts they would have their full $150 refunded.
Responding to a list of 10 emailed questions, Lyft spokeswoman Kate Margolis responded generally.
"We have in-depth screening process for drivers, including a criminal background and driving-record checks (including queries of local, state and federal databases, and a 50-state sex offender registry check), in addition to a vehicle inspection," Margolis wrote.
Margolis cited the company's terms of service, which passengers agree to when signing up for the Lyft app, in defending the damage claims made by Ricky Marquart's driver.
"Lyft's support team thoroughly investigates damage incidents, and makes a determination based on the available evidence on a case by case basis," Margolis wrote. "Our support team gathers and reviews evidence - which can include statements from all parties, photographs, prior feedback, and more. We make a determination based on the evidence provided."
Margolis did not answer questions relating to punishment or suspension of Lyft drivers who are found to make false claims. An email sent to the Marquarts by a Lyft representative after The Forum contacted the company about their case said, "This sort of behavior by a driver is a violation of our Terms of Service and is something we absolutely do not tolerate in the Lyft community. I have ensured that you were promptly refunded for the $150 fee. Please know that the concerns brought to our attention have been investigated, and that I followed up with this driver to take the appropriate and necessary actions."
The email did not specify the actions.
Tiffany Marquart called the West Fargo Police to report the incident, but was told false damage claims made against Lyft and Uber drivers are civil matters because of the terms of service agreed to by the passengers.
"They are definitely written to the benefit of the company," Assistant Chief Jerry Boyer said. "I just don't see our prosecutors pursuing something like that as a criminal matter."
Boyer said police would likely pursue a driver who made multiple false claims, if there was evidence to prosecute.
Fargo Police Assistant Chief Joe Anderson said "vomit fraud" is not common in the area and, given the terms of service agreement, suggested riders protect themselves with video or photos if it is a concern.
"If the passengers are sober enough to remember or concerned about being scammed, they could record the event using their smartphone or take photos of the vehicle's interior when they get in and out," Anderson said.
That burden of proof frustrates the Marquarts. Tiffany believes Lyft and Uber too easily absolve themselves of responsibility for a driver's bad actions and don't provide enough follow-up when a customer challenges a claim.
"I know there are a lot of drivers out there who don't do this," she said. "But some obviously do. You'd think Lyft would care more, but I guess they just wash their hands of it and say, 'Not our problem.' They just make it so easy for guys to do this."
Ricky wonders anything can be done locally.
"The police view it as a civil matter, but could they look at it differently? Is there an ordinance that could be passed locally? Lyft is a California company doing business in North Dakota, in Fargo and West Fargo. Who is going to step in and tell them to knock this off?" Ricky said.