SPECIAL REPORT: Bolt drivers harm, steal from Nigerians — and the company is Helpless

SPECIAL REPORT: Bolt drivers harm, steal from Nigerians — and the company is helpless

Oluwaseun Oti, an entrepreneur renting out service apartments in Lagos, couldn’t stay calm. He had lost N130,000 and, after six silent hours, feared his money was gone forever.

The last time Oti saw Saheed Olumegbon, his Bolt driver, was around 10 am; it was afternoon now. He had erroneously paid him N130,000 instead of N1,300 for a 15-minute ride from Olubunmi Owa street to Ologolo bus stop, Ikate Maiyagun Road, Lekki, Lagos.

“I sent N130,000 and I didn’t notice until an hour later, when I wanted to make another transaction,” Oti told FIJ.

“I wrote to Bolt’s customer service on the app and they requested for the receipt of the transaction, which I sent to them. But they never replied afterwards.”

Oti got several hours of silence from Bolt, unreturned phone calls from Olumegbon and a confirmation from GTBank that Olumegbon had wiped his bank account clean. FIJ reported Olumegbon’s theft and revealed his location before he texted Oti.

“I have a problem I used the money for. Please give me till Monday. I will send the money,” Olumegbon wrote to Oti over 24 hours later.

FROM NEW PLATFORM TO MARKET LEADER

In its five years of operation, Bolt Nigeria has succeeded in developing from a new taxi platform to the leader of the ride-hailing market. Usurping Uber and establishing its presence in 33 Nigerian cities have been touted as the company’s success, but Bolt has allowed some of its shortcomings to hurt people in these cities.

Riders have accused drivers registered on the Bolt platform of stealing money and items from them, and this investigation found that the company often fails to be of much help to its riders whenever a driver committed a crime.

 

Many riders told FIJ about Bolt’s tardiness in responding to distress calls, and that the company often told them to go the police without themselves making a decision to remedy the trend of thieving drivers till this day.

MONEY, ITEMS NOT SAFE ON BOLT

 


Bolt Nigeria Lekki Office ||PHOTO CREDIT: Joseph Adeiye for FIJ

Bolt came to Africa in 2016 but it went by a different name back then: Taxify. It arrived in Lagos after Accra, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Nairobi in the same year.

Taxify was founded in Estonia after brothers Martin and Markus Villig, alongside technical co-founder Oliver Leisalu, built on the idea of an application that would connect taxi drivers to potential riders in 2013.

Taxify became Bolt in 2019 and built a ‘super app’ with over 100 million customers in more than 45 countries.

“Riders are assured of the best experience using Taxify, as their rides are handled by happier partners, which ultimately leads to a better service delivery to riders. We believe the bulk of the earnings of a trip should go to vehicle owner amidst the rising cost of maintaining and fuelling the vehicle,” Uche Okafor, operations manager of Taxify (now Bolt), said in 2016.

Several years later, riders have had some of the worst transit experiences in Lagos on Bolt. For instance, Oti had to wait for two weeks before Olumegbon could walk into a banking hall with him to refund his money.

While Bolt is focusing on “building the future of transportation”, it has clearly moved its focus away from guaranteeing passengers’ safety.

“My friend was robbed on Monday in Lagos by a Bolt driver with a gun,” MacDonald Ibegbulem announced on February 12.

Ibegbulem said his friend’s driver took her phone and other belongings. From the victim’s phone, the Bolt driver obtained a certain level of access to her bank account to withdraw over N210,000. The victim could not log in without her phone.

“Please, how can you help us?” Ibegbulem wrote on Twitter, tagging Bolt’s official account. Nonetheless, his tweet did not receive a single response. Such a scenario supports many allegations of slow and unsatisfactory response to customers in distress.

Ibegbulam was just one of many.

ONE DREADFUL NIGHT

When I met Faith Yemi, a tailor working in Lagos, she was very calm and collected. Then she started her tale of one night on a Bolt ride and lost all composure. Yemi’s encounter with a Bolt driver from hell has left a psychological scar on her.

“On July 7, I ordered a Bolt ride to go see a friend. I had tried ordering immediately after I left home, but most of the drivers were unavailable at the time,” Yemi narrated.

“I started looking for a Bolt driver around 8 pm but only found one about an hour later. When he came to pick me up, I confirmed his plate number and face matched those on the Bolt app. I tried to get in the front seat but the door was locked, so I settled for the backseat.”

Yemi did not feel uncomfortable at first, since it was not the first time she was taking a taxi home. She was doing something else on her phone when she told the driver he could start the trip. The ride started but this driver deliberately refused to start the trip on the Bolt app.

“Three roads, including Alausa road and Allen Avenue, led to my destination,” said Yemi. “The driver decided not to drive through Allen. Allen bus stop always has a police patrol team around, so maybe that was why he did not go through there. I did not suspect him of foul play because I did not expect anything bad to happen to me.

“He told me he was going to drive through Alausa and I told him I had no problem with that. We picked up a conversation as he drove. When we got to Kule Bus Stop, the driver said that he wanted to use an ATM. I allowed him.”

Yemi said that the driver returned and said that the ATMs within the bank’s premises were locked. The journey continued for a short while then the car came to an abrupt stop.

“I asked the driver if anything was wrong. But he remained quiet and brought out a container and was trying to open it. I was looking at him from the backseat suspiciously now. He then turned back and said ‘this is going to be the last time you are going to be walking about at night’. I was in shock and still wondering what he was going on about, then I stretched my hand to hold his. He then said ‘I am going to teach you a lesson,’” said Yemi.

“The driver then warned me to let go of his hand and told me that he would pour the acid on me. So I quickly tried to let go of him and open the back door. It was then I realised that the doors had been locked.”

The driver had Yemi locked in and was threatening to harm her.

“It was really late and I usually patronised Bolt at such times because it was relatively safe. I did not board public transport because of my safety,” Yemi said.

But there she was with this driver who told her he was from Ota and he was looking for someone to ‘use’. It was the first serious threat to her life.

“He said that they were looking for someone to ‘use,’” said Yemi. This implied that he intended to abduct her for human rituals or wanted to hand her over to others for organ harvesting.

In a short moment of sexual harassment, the driver touched Yemi’s breasts and claimed that she was ‘complete’.

The driver, holding Yemi hostage, ordered her to call her friend and tell her she would not be able to make it to the birthday party that night.

“I called my friend and told her that my mother was in urgent need of something that night. My friend instructed me to inform her when I got home after I ran the errand. The driver then told me that I should cooperate with him and he would not harm me,” she said.

After ordering Yemi to switch her phone to airplane mode, he went through her text messages. The driver asked Yemi for money next. He had heard her tell her mother that she had seen a credit alert on the phone.

“The driver took my iPhone and asked for my password before checking my text messages. He confirmed I had about N100,000 in my bank account. The money belonged to my mother; we wanted to use it to pay a rent. He then told me to call my friends and ask them for money that night,” she said.

“I told him that I could not call people but I could give him part of the rent money from my mom. He refused and said that he didn’t want to touch my mom’s money. After saying this, he checked my Piggyvest app and saw my savings after he used my face to unlock the wallet.”

The money Yemi’s Piggyvest wallet was meant for a sewing machine, but the driver moved it — her savings for several months — from Piggyvest to her Zenith Bank account and took her ATM card.

“This driver said that he was going to put me to sleep and try my ATM card with the PIN I gave him. He said that if the PIN was correct, he would let me go, but if the PIN was wrong, I would not wake up,” said Yemi.

Yemi argued with the Bolt driver and begged for her life before he let her go just past midnight. She was stripped of her iPhone X, wallet and ATM card.

She managed to escape that night, and she knows now that Bolt is not a safe option at all times.

DOUBLE-FACED DRIVERS FIND CRIME EASY

Bolt drivers in Nigeria are selling verified accounts to unknown third parties in person and on social media. Many of such drivers would commit petty crimes under the radar and passengers would find it difficult to identify them.

Bolt always maintains that it takes issues of misconduct directed towards passengers very seriously, but the attacks on passengers are continuous.

On March 18, Ade Sonaike ordered a Bolt ride in Lagos but found that the driver was using another person’s verified Bolt account.

“We moved a little and I looked at the face of the person on the app; it didn’t match the person driving at all. So I asked him why the app gave me someone and it wasn’t him,” Sonaike told FIJ.

“He said that Bolt Nigeria blocked his account and that was his brother’s own.”

This Bolt driver acted strangely and she feared what his intentions were. Sonaike shared her ride location with her family and asked the driver to stop so she could end the trip. He increased his driving speed and refused to stop. The door handles were broken and the driver locked Sonaike in too.

Trending videos and posts on social media had previously revealed that Bolt drivers with bad intentions remove door handles from within their vehicles and lock their victims in.

“We were already at the traffic light in Maryland, towards Anthony Road. I told him if he didn’t drop me, I’d break his window and he got so angry and started to insult me. Traffic was building up so he stopped at Leventis bus stop and ended the trip,” Sonaike said.

“Maybe, just maybe something would have happened to me.”

Telegram and Facebook posts about verified Bolt driver accounts for sale exist till this day.

 

People ask and offer verified Bolt drivers’ accounts on Facebook groups, such as this one.

 

 

Faceless Facebook users offer Bolt inspection reports for those willing to pay.

Bolt requires every driver to undergo a background check and preliminary test. The ride-hailing company collects identification, vehicle inspection and insurance documents. They also ask for guarantors and do background checks. Afterwards, prospective Bolt drivers attend a mandatory safety training and test. However, the company doesn’t follow these requirements to the letter, and persons have found ways to go around Bolt’s minimal standards. The renting and selling of verified accounts to unknown third parties via groups on Facebook, Telegram and WhatsApp is one of the ways they do it.

Although Bolt considers this practice fraudulent, it is yet to come up with procedures to mitigate it. Some drivers sell their verified accounts when they don’t have the time to use it or when they quit taking ride-hailing jobs. There is a growing market of unqualified and underqualified persons who are desperate to possess the verified Bolt accounts. Others have cars but aren’t willing to go through background checks or tests by Bolt.

“The driver was supposed to be this guy but I got a chubby dark guy,” Sonaike told this reporter.

 

Bolt driver account used by the impostor who drove Sonaike

Bolt told FIJ that it was working on a face detection programme, but it would take some time before this very important feature is available.

“Feedback from initial tests show promising outcomes. Testing and improvement of the facial detection algorithms are still ongoing and relatively minor developmental issues with one of our vendors who supplies the government-based identification photos in Nigeria are being addressed,” Bolt told FIJ when questioned about driver identity.

BOLT’S DEFENCE 

Umar Sodiq, operations manager at Bolt Nigeria, failed to respond to emails from FIJ about the company’s approach to drivers who steal from passengers.

But a Bolt spokesperson told FIJ the company was speaking with the Facebook Marketplace team to monitor criminals buying driver accounts on Facebook. Bolt also said it was trying enhanced features on its behavioural quality score system.

“Our BQS system for improved rating system to incorporate better and more comprehensive feedback to drivers has been fully rolled out across Nigeria,” said Bolt.

“An important feature of BQS is that it flags driver behaviour and funnels and directs drivers for compulsory retraining and further monitoring. Since the roll out of BQS, the average driver rating has improved and the average driver rating on our platform is now above 4.80.”

Bolt revealed that it was working to monitor sellers of its accounts and verification on Facebook.

ROGUE BOLT GROUPS STILL EXIST ON FACEBOOK

Despite those claims, previous responses from Bolt show a lack of anticipation of defaulting drivers and a failure to safeguard passengers from drivers committing crimes against them.

In Oti’s case, Bolt Nigeria told him to go to the police station after several hours of futile probing.

“We take issues like this seriously,” Bolt replied Oti on Twitter. “We have received your report and we have started investigations into this. A member of our team will contact you.”

Bolt made a phone call to Oti the following morning, saying that they had been unable to reach Olumegbon, and Oti was free to contact the Nigeria police.

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