“I’ve been ordering taxi rides through the Bolt app for three years. Everything was fine until I noticed that the names and pictures of the drivers picking me up did not match the information displayed on the app. I feel uneasy every time this happens,” Hadeel (21 years) told SMEX.
With the worsening of the Lebanese crisis and the steady collapse of the Lebanese pound against the U.S. dollar since 2019, the transportation sector has had its share of suffering. Gasoline prices have recently exceeded LBP 1,010,000 for 20 Litres (more than USD 15 at the rate of LBP 60,000 to USD 1). Many taxi drivers consider Bolt an easy way to find passengers instead of driving on the streets all day. However, the company declared that it would stop recruiting new drivers, leading to a concerning phenomenon: renting Bolt accounts.
Many Bolt drivers with an account showing their name, photo, and vehicle registration plate are renting their accounts to random drivers. The rentee receives ride requests and works under the main account holder’s name and photo, in exchange for a monthly or weekly payment.
Although the actual driver’s information does not match those on the app, which is a cause for concern according to Hadeel, she still chooses to use Bolt almost every day for her commute. The reason is that Bolt is easy to use. The user only has to open the app, specify their pick-up location and destination, and approve (or reject) the estimated cost to get a taxi.
A Threat to Passengers’ Digital Security
There are numerous advertisements for renting Bolt accounts across all social media platforms. Rabih, a Bolt driver who rents his account, reported to SMEX that the cost of renting a Bolt account ranges between $100 and $250 per month or roughly LBP 1,000,000 per week. However, many fall victim to fraud, “as some drivers sell their accounts and then change their email in the application and resell it over and over again,” Rabih explained.
The situation is certainly worrying because users’ information, such as their location, name, and phone number, automatically becomes available to individuals who are not registered in the company’s system (i.e. those renting the accounts). In the event of any accident or issue, there is a genuine risk that the actual driver cannot be identified.
Bolt’s decision to suspend the opening of new accounts is not the only reason behind this phenomenon. Previously, drivers had to submit several documents, including their public driver’s license, their Lebanese ID, and their car insurance documents. Those who could not submit these documents resorted to renting a registered driver’s account. Ibrahim, a Syrian resident in Lebanon who works as a Bolt driver with a rented account, explained to SMEX that many people reported his account. “It only takes one complaint to block the account for one week and two complaints to close it permanently,” said Ibrahim.
Samar Al-Halal, Technology Unit Lead at SMEX, offers a set of tips to protect your digital and physical security: Make sure that the driver is the one in the photo displayed on the application; verify that the vehicle’s plate is the same as the one registered on Bolt; specify a pick-up location at a reasonable distance from your house, preferably in a known public place; and, finally, keep the Virtual Private Network (VPN) permanently activated on your mobile phone.
Position of the Lebanese Public Transport Sector
There is no common authority representing public drivers in Lebanon, particularly in light of the numerous disagreements between the President of the Land Transport Union head, Bassam Tlais, and the President of the Public Transport Drivers Union, Marwan Fayyad, especially regarding taxi fees.
“We filed a complaint against Bolt in 2021. An investigation was conducted with the Internal Security Force’s Bureau of International Theft, but no decisions have been made yet,” Fayyad told SMEX. He added that the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities allows the company to operate so it facilitates access to public transport for citizens who cannot afford to take a regular taxi, giving them the cheaper option of ordering a motorcycle ride instead. Fayyad explained that “although this constitutes a violation of the Lebanese Traffic Law and Labor Law, authorities are not taking action.”
No Response from Bolt
Bolt is not communicating with drivers or commenting on recent developments. SMEX contacted the company’s office in Estonia, but its Public Relations Department only responded to our request with a message stating that: “Since our official spokesperson is unavailable, we will not be able to take part in the interview.” They did not take the initiative to set another date or time at which the “official spokesperson” would be available.
“Apparently, an unknown party constantly communicates with the company. When there were roadblocks and protests, Bolt would immediately adjust their prices,” claimed a self-employed taxi driver who also works with Bolt.
Charbel Chbeir, an attorney and cybercrime expert, believes that “using Bolt does not entail legal problems since its terms and conditions are clearly displayed in the application. Moreover, the application adopts policies to enhance passengers’ data security that comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Passengers’ data (name, photo, and phone number) are used only during the ride. However, renting and selling accounts has become widespread, posing many risks and leading to chaos.”
The Lebanese economic crisis has led to inconsistencies in pricing rides on the Bolt app. The application may set LBP 70,000 for a given lift, but the driver asks for LBP 100,000. No law regulates such applications. Despite these issues, “Bolt cannot be considered illegal,” according to Chbeir.
Nevertheless, “a passenger can file a criminal lawsuit under the cybercrime law because fake accounts had access to their data, as Law 81/2018 on Electronic Transactions and Personal Data stipulates that data shall be protected and not sold,” added Chbeir. He also mentioned that Bolt does not pay taxes because it is not registered in Lebanon, which is against the law.
Renting or selling Bolt accounts entails many risks. In addition to violating users’ privacy and disclosing their data, it also risks passengers’ physical safety. The case of Rebecca Dykes, a British Embassy worker in Beirut who was raped and strangled by an Uber driver in 2017, is a chilling reminder of what this phenomenon may lead to in the future if not addressed.