Automated online services are totally convenient and totally great — until they’re not. That’s when consumers are reminded that the robot takeover is upon us and resistance is futile.
At least that’s what was going through my head when I chatted recently with Silver Lake resident Steve Robinson, who was billed $236 by Uber for a trip to San Luis Obispo that he never requested and thought he’d canceled.
That alone is sufficiently hinky to merit a closer look. Robinson’s total inability to reach anyone at Uber by phone or email to address the problem ices the cake.
Picture astronaut Dave Bowman in “2001” locked outside the spaceship saying, “Do you read me, HAL? … HAL? …”
Robinson’s predicament wasn’t quite so dire, but it similarly illustrates how we can be at the mercy of technology intended to make our lives better.
He and his partner went to a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills. Robinson, 68, figured he’d probably be drinking some wine, so they planned on using Uber to get there and back.
The eight-mile trip to Hollywood was uneventful and cost $18.20. Dinner was pleasant. Then it was time to return.
Robinson said he booked a ride via the Uber app and saw that he’d been given a pickup point way down the hill, nearly a mile away. So he manually entered the address of his current location, saw that it had been accepted and confirmed the trip.
A few minutes later, Robinson checked to see how long the ride home might take. It was with more than a little surprise that he saw an estimate of about three hours.
He looked closer. For reasons passing strange, Uber had decided it wasn’t taking Robinson back to Silver Lake. It was taking him to San Luis Obispo, about 180 miles up the California coast.
“I like San Luis Obispo,” Robinson told me. “But, no, I didn’t ask to go there.”
He canceled the trip via the app. His host for the dinner party offered to cover Robinson’s ride home using his own Uber account and all was well.
Actually, not so much.
After returning home, Robinson checked his Uber account and found a receipt that included a $15.82 trip fare and an 84-cent promotional discount for a total of $14.98.
And it showed that his American Express card had been billed $236.
Robinson reported the billing issue via the app and received a message saying, “Your cancellation fee was already adjusted for this trip.”
However, the $236 charge remained on his credit card — a bill for a trip he didn’t take to a place he didn’t ask to go.
Now comes the tricky part: How do you contact a company that doesn’t want to be contacted?
It’s a condition common among tech companies that apparently believe they’re too cool or cutting edge for something as quaint as customer service.
The only one that seems to take customer service seriously is Amazon, which has innovated a nifty system whereby you shoot them an email if you have a problem and within minutes a service rep gives you a call.
It’s an approach all big companies should use, rather than keeping people on hold for epic waits, all the while cruelly repeating, “Your call is important to us.”
Uber is typical of how most tech companies do things.
Go to the company’s site. There’s no link marked “contact us.” But if you scroll down you’ll find one that says, “Get help.”
That link takes you to a page with a link to “account and payment options.” Clicking that takes you to a page with dozens of links to various self-help options. They very last one is “my account has an unrecognized charge.”
Clicking that leads to yet another page where you can fill out a form, which Uber says it will “review and get back to you.”
The company, like most of its tech cousins, is clearly determined to keep you from getting anywhere near a human being.
Undaunted, Robinson did a Google search for an Uber phone number. That produced (800) 353-UBER, which the company says is for emergencies only.
Robinson tried it (as did I) and found that you get a recording telling you to call 911 if it’s a real emergency and to otherwise seek help online.
Robinson searched for and found an email address to try, email@example.com. This produced an automated response from “Team Uber.”
“We’re sorry,” it said. “You’ve contacted an address that does not accept incoming email,” which is obviously untrue, seeing as how Robinson’s incoming email triggered a response. “We’d love to help you out if you have an issue.”
Needless to say, it steered him back to the app.
So Robinson got in touch with me instead. I in turn reached out to Uber’s press office. I asked for details about Robinson’s experience as well as tips for Uber users who need to contact the company with their own issues.
It wasn’t an auspicious start. Andrew Hasbun, a company spokesman, requested by email more info about Robinson, which I provided.
“This should be enough,” he replied. “I’ll get back. Assuming this isn’t needed ASAP. If you don’t hear from me by tomorrow morning, please remind.”
Please remind? Because, what, questions from the largest news organization in California to the communications department of a prominent San Francisco company might be forgotten overnight?
And guess what? They were. The next morning, no Hasbun.
In the meantime, Uber contacted Robinson and said they had refunded his $236. The company offered no explanation for what happened. (Uber says it has no record of Robinson contesting the charge in the app.)
“Kenny” in Uber Support said that if Robinson had any future difficulties, he should feel free to contact the company — via the app.
Robinson told me he was glad to have his money back, “but the best outcome would be a system whereby a customer can actually contact someone to seek a reasonable resolution,” rather than turning to the press.
I emailed Hasbun again with a gentle reminder that we were, you know, communicating.
“I am so sorry,” he responded a day later. “I totally forgot to get back.”
Hasbun had no explanation for Robinson’s situation. “Clearly something went wrong here so we are looking into it,” he said.
If other Uber users have problems, they shouldn’t hesitate to contest any questionable charge, Hasbun advised.
He said they can do this “in the app.”
6:30 p.m.: This column was updated with a statement from Uber that it has no record of a charge being contested.
This column was originally published at 5 a.m.