MONEY holiday shopping

3 Last-Minute Gifts You Definitely Shouldn’t Buy—And What to Get Instead

141219_EM_LastMinuteGifts
Paul Linse—Corbis

Behind on your holiday shopping? Here's how not to screw up

It’s that time of year, everyone. There are three shopping days left before Christmas, and as of a few days ago, 73% of you hadn’t bought all of your gifts yet. Retailers are so used to procrastinators now that some are specifically preparing for an influx of last-minute buyers.

I’d ask why we all can’t just learn to plan ahead, but there’s no time for that kind of self-reflection. There’s no time for anything but shopping. But before you rush down to your favorite store or schedule a lot of overnight shipping on Amazon, remember this: The key to a good last-minute gift is the recipient can’t know you bought it in the last five minutes. With that in mind, here are three presents that are absolutely guaranteed to blow your cover, and what you should get instead.

Soap and Lotions

“Everyone loves soap! I’ll just hit up the Bath & Body Works, grab a few gift boxes, and still have time to pick up drinks for the Christmas party!”

These are the words of holiday shopping failure.

It’s true that everyone needs soap. That’s why it’s a bad gift. Soap is probably the most generic present on the planet. By purchasing soap for your loved ones, friends, or even acquaintances, you are saying that you know that person showers now and then—or that they don’t shower enough. Neither is good.

What to get instead: Booze. It’s the one completely generic, readily available gift (even in airports) that no one will be disappointed to receive.

Starbucks Gift Card

I’m on the record as a big supporter of gift cards. Lot’s of people want them and they guarantee your recipient will get something they like. That’s more than you can say about almost any other present.

But Starbucks gift cards are an exception. They’re kind of like soap in the sense that, because everyone drinks coffee, this gift shows you don’t know much about the person you’re giving it to. And, in a way, it’s worse than soap because there is no product more readily available than something from Starbucks, making it clear you probably picked it up on Christmas morning.

But the problems are deeper than that. The great thing about gift cards is they allow you to splurge on something without feeling bad. Who cares if you don’t really need a Kindle? You’re playing with house money! What is anyone going to splurge on at Starbucks? A bigger latte? Wow, what a magical Christmas.

What to get instead: Amazon gift card. Whenever I recommend gift cards, people always ask, “Well why don’t you just get them actual money then?!” Because giving someone a wad of cash makes Christmas feel like a drug deal. An Amazon gift card is pretty much the same as cash, but more gifty.

Sports Apparel

There are two rules that govern the gift giving of clothing: Don’t get someone something they already have, and don’t get them something they might be embarrassed to wear. Getting your friend or loved one sports clothing violates both of these rules.

If someone is a big [insert sports team] fan, they undoubtedly have an [insert sports team] hat, shirt, or jersey. Maybe they don’t have all three, but you won’t know which part of their [insert sports team] wardrobe is lacking until you see the disappointed look on your friend’s face as they unwrap their third Twins cap.

Some attempt to avoid this outcome by buying non-standard sports gear: Some [insert sports team] sweatpants, or a super-cool [insert sports team] beanie! But unless they’re some kind of [insert sports team] fanatic, they probably don’t actually want a bunch of random items baring their team insignia and your gift will end up in the back of the closet.

What to get instead: Tickets to a game. That’s a can’t-miss present for any sports fan, and it shows you really value your relationship because you’re willing to spend a few hours together at the arena. Plus, experiences make people happier than things.

MONEY holiday shopping

11 Clever Stocking Stuffers They’ll Never Know Cost Almost Nothing

If you’ve ever struggled to get a good gift at the last minute and, like most Americans, ended up spending way too much as a consequence, do not fear. Here’s a list of $25-and-under presents that will impress with their (read: your) savvy—without putting a big dent in your wallet.

  • Citrus spritzer ($5)

    Citrus Spritzer
    Citrus Spritzer

    Whether the goal is keeping guacamole from browning, adding an even mist of lime juice to some (chili!) popcorn, or simply wowing guests, the Quirky Citrus Spritzer is pretty much the coolest gadget you can get someone for $5. Expert tip? Increase juice flow by rolling the fruit in question on a table for a minute before inserting the device—and spritzing to your heart’s content.

  • “Drinks are on me” coasters ($6)

    Set Of Four 'Drinks Are On Me' Coasters
    Set Of Four 'Drinks Are On Me' Coasters Karin Åkesson

    Get these charming furniture-protecting coasters from illustrator Karin Akesson for the pun enthusiasts in your life (or that friend who always picks the most literal responses in Cards Against Humanity). Or anyone, really: Who doesn’t love a good double entendre?

  • Clothespin clip-on reading light ($7)

    Clothespin Reading Light
    Clothespin Reading Light MoMA

    Like any unsung hero, this ordinary-looking clothespin doesn’t seem like much at first glance. But pin it to the corner of a book and it transforms into the (drumroll…) Clothespin Clip Light—casting extra light across text while holding pages in place. It’s a sweet stocking stuffer for bookworms and lovers of modern/contemporary art alike… and worst-case scenario, it can be used to hang laundry.

  • Tetris Jenga ($12)

    Jenga Tetris Game
    Jenga Tetris Game Hasbro

    If you thought Truth or Dare Jenga was bold, give Tetris Jenga a spin. This new take on the game has six different shapes that look like the ones you used to flip around on your Ti-84 instead of paying attention in math class. It’s a lot harder to pull a piece out, but destroying the tower is the whole point anyway, right?

  • Tablet “hands” prop ($16)

    TwoHands E-reader prop
    TwoHands E-reader prop Felix

    In the catalog of first-world problems, having to hold your iPad while you use it might be at the top of the list. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t an issue people want solved, and luckily for us, TwoHands E-reader prop is here to help. TwoHands not only props up your tablet so you can read or watch movies hands-free, but its cute little hands will make you smile.

  • Folding cutting board ($16)

    Folding Cutting Board
    MoMA

    Unless you’ve got knife skills like a ninja (or Jamie Oliver), it’s hard to keep all those darn veggie bits on the chopping board and off of the floor. MoMA’s Folding Cutting Board solves that problem with bendable sides that transform into a little chute to help keep chopped food in check and transfer pieces from one place to another neatly. It’s the perfect gift for friends or family members with culinary inclinations but a low tolerance for clean-up.

  • Personalized “magic” mug ($17)

    Walgreen's Magic Mug
    Walgreen's Magic Mug Walgreen's

    This Collage Magic Mug from Walgreens lets you add text and up to 15 custom photos to a mug—with a fun extra twist: Those images appear only when the cup is filled with a hot beverage. Whether you lean more sentimental or silly, a personalized gift like this is likely to mean more than the typical holiday present. One playful idea? Photoshop images of you and other friends so it appears you’re “trapped” in the mug.

  • Smartphone gloves ($20)

    Agloves smartphone gloves
    Joe Coca

    Unless you live in a naturally perfect climate, you might be familiar with the winter misery of trying to type on your smartphone with the useless icicles you once called fingers, as freezing sleet and wind whips around you. Enter Agloves smartphone gloves. Yes, there are even cheaper versions out there, but deep discounts come at the expense of quality and touch-screen responsiveness. These sleek puppies give you the equivalent of BMW performance at Hyundai prices.

  • Foodie Survival Kit ($20)

    Restoration Hardware Foodie Survival Kit
    Restoration Hardware Foodie Survival Kit Restoration Hardware

    For foodies and flavor junkies who can’t tolerate a bland meal, this emergency Mobile Foodie Survival kit is a game-changer, especially while on the road (or camping). With 13 organic spices, your gift recipient can heat up a too-tame Tikka Masala or add herbal fragrance to a mopey pasta Alfredo. Plus, buying the kit supports a good cause: It’s assembled by disabled adults through non-profit Brooklyn Community Services.

  • 10-in-1 bartender tool ($22)

    Restoration Hardware Bar10DER
    Restoration Hardware

    We’re not going to say they’re the best part of December, but holiday cocktails are a delight, and anyone who disagrees is wrong. Hopefully those on your gift list understand the truth, because you won’t find a better gift than this Bar10der tool from Restoration Hardware. Whether one needs to muddle some rosemary, zest an orange, or strain ice, the 10 devices that pop out of this tool have got the cocktail game covered.

  • Dining Table Tennis ($24)

    Dining Table Tennis
    Dining Table Tennis Restoration Hardware

    Here’s a scenario: It’s day two of your family’s holiday celebration. Cookies have been eaten, presents opened, and Netflix queues depleted. Everyone’s trapped together and there’s nothing left to distract from food comas (and bickering relatives). Enter Dining Table Tennis, a kit with all you need to turn your dining room table into a ping pong battlefield. It burns more calories than Scrabble and gives your loved ones something fun to do—even after all the wine is gone.

MONEY Autos

Cuba’s Classic Cars May Be Available, But Are They Worth Anything?

Classic 1959 White Cadillac In Veradara, Cuba.
A classic 1959 White Cadillac In Veradara, Cuba. Education Images—UIG via Getty Images

Cuba is home to a trove of classic American cars, but the ingenuity that has kept them running may have ruined their value.

If there’s a product Cuba is famous for—other than cigars—it’s cars. After Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959, he imposed a new law that prevented anyone without government permission from importing foreign automobiles. That turned Cuba into a car museum in the making, sealing the island off from the automotive future.

For the past fifty-odd years, the streets of Havana have famously been filled with what have become classic cars. And now that President Barack Obama is encouraging Congress to remove a ban on Cuban imports, everything from Studebakers to mid-century Chevys could be available to U.S. buyers. The question for collectors is: Are they still worth anything?

“The problem is that, in general, the collectors know these cars have not really been maintained,” says Steve Linden, a vintage car appraiser. “They’ve been actually driven and used as daily cars.”

That’s an issue because a classic car is valued precisely for its classic components. Cubans have been unable to import new parts, so they’ve had to make repairs by creatively mixing and matching what’s available. A particular car might look like an original Dodge Coronet, but under the hood could be a frankenstein mix of pieces from other models. “The ability to keep these things running is what diminishes the value of the car because they’re not original,” Linden explains.

Some collectors might consider buying a car and restoring the original components, but that might not make sense either. A restoration, according to Linden, would cost somewhere between $40,000 and $80,000, depending on the car. Meanwhile, he estimates the same cars in good condition could be bought in America for somewhere between $15,000 and $70,000, with ’50s Chevys—ubiquitous in Cuba—on the low end, and Cadillac convertibles on the high end.

Jonathan Klinger, spokesman for Hagerty, a collector car insurance company, agrees the value of Cuba’s classic cars might be overblown. “I think some people have this vision of a treasure trove of lost cars, but some of the greatest cars from the days of the Cuban Grand Prix have already left through other countries,” said Klinger in a phone interview. “What’s left are a lot of 1950s American cars that have remained through the circumstances, and it took a tremendous amount of passion and ingenuity to keep them on the road.”

Donald Osborne, owner of Automotive Valuation Services, says there are rumors that exotic sports cars were abandoned as their owners fled Cuba, but nobody’s ever seen proof they exist. One of those cars, like a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, could sell for over $1 million. But the average Chevy? “Run-of-the-mill 1950s American cars make no sense as restoration projects,” declares Osborne.

But for both Osborne and Klinger, the value in these cars isn’t their classic nature, it’s in the story they tell. That story could lead some car connoisseurs to pay premium prices for a piece of history. “They’re not overly valuable, but they’re extremely significant,” says Klinger. “Line five cars up at a car show and one of them is tattered looking, but it came from Cuba? That’s interesting.”

Linden isn’t so sure the historic value of Cuba’s cars will be enough to make them valuable. He notes that when former Soviet territories began to open up, they boasted a similar cache of classics, but interest was tepid and few were repatriated to the United States. People might be more willing to import cars from nearby Cuba, admits Linden, but “My opinion is they probably won’t.”

MONEY sharing economy

Uber Promises to Improve Safety Using New Technology

Uber
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Uber's safety chief is promising to improve driver screening using things like "biometrics and voice verification."

Ridesharing company Uber, which has come under fire recently after multiple highly publicized incidents of driver misconduct, has outlined various steps it is taking to make its service more secure.

In a Wednesday blog post entitled “Our Commitment to Safety,” Philip Cardenas, Uber’s global security head, defended the company’s current safety procedures—such as a driver rating system and “multi-layered background checks”—but acknowledged that Uber still has “more work to do, and we will do it.”

That work appears to consist of four major efforts that are being undertaken following what Cardenas describes as a global security review:

First, Uber will attempt to improve safety through new technology, which will involve biometrics and voice verification for “enhanced driver screening,” and more ways to communicate with Uber and personal contacts in the event of an emergency.

The company will also take steps to improve background checks internationally, where Cardenas says standards vary widely. Once again, Uber promises to solve this problem partially by “using scientific analysis and technology to find solutions.” Customer support will also become a focus for the company, with former Amazon executive Tim Collins joining the company to lead a global support initiative.

Finally, Cardenas writes that Uber will be “working with partners that have deep expertise in issues like women’s safety, conflict resolution, and road safety and incorporate their counsel into our global safety roadmap.”

The post is unlikely to satisfy critics, who claim Uber’s current background checks are insufficient. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon has called Uber’s background checks “completely worthless” because they do not involve fingerprinting drivers, and others have complained the checks do not run through the F.B.I.’s criminal database, as is required by taxi commissions in many municipalities. Cardenas also does not address the fact that Uber’s drivers are not drug tested—a violation of the law in some of Uber’s markets—and often do not carry adequate insurance.

Uber has previously defended its driver screening processes as being superior to government background checks because they use original records as opposed to databases that are potentially out of date.

MONEY Odd Spending

How Much Would Hanukkah Gelt Be Worth If It Were Real Gold?

Bag of Hanukkah Gelt
The gelt we used for this measurement. Sarina Finkelstein

Inquiring minds want to know.

Ever wonder how much that Hanukkah gelt would be worth if it were actually 24-karat gold and not foil-wrapped chocolate? Well, we’ve got the answer.

For those who don’t know, chocolate “gelt,” or money, is a traditional Hanukkah treat for children and often used in the holiday game dreidel. The dreidel is a spinning top with four sides, and depending on which side the top lands on, players get either all of the gelt in the pot, half of the pot, nothing—or have to add another piece of gelt to the pot.

But let’s get back to the question at hand. Of course, you can’t just weigh the chocolate coins and calculate the value of that weight in gold. After all—SCIENCE FACT!—a gold coin the same size as a gelt coin would weigh much more than the chocolate. (Gold is almost three times as heavy as lead by volume.)

So, instead, we found the volume of our $1.49 bag of Hanukkah gelt using the displacement method. Then, armed with the easily obtained density of gold—19.32 grams per cubic centimeter—we calculated how much gold coins of the same size as discs of Hanukkah gelt would weigh. Finally, we calculated how much a small bag (containing one large and three small coins) of real gold gelt would cost at the current market price of $38.45 per gram.

The results: All together, the one large and three small coins in our bag would be worth about $7,785. Individually, the big coin was worth $3,373 (rounded to the nearest dollar) and the three little coins were each worth about $1,471.

Happy Hanukkah!

MONEY Markets

Why Russia Is Destroying Its Own Economy

A woman walks past a board listing foreign currency rates against the Russian ruble outside an exchange office in central Moscow on December 16, 2014. The Russian ruble set a new all-time record low on Tuesday after bouncing back briefly despite an emergency move by Russia's central bank to raise interest rates to 17 percent.
Kirill Kudryavtsev—AFP/Getty Images

In short, because Russia has a problem more urgent than its declining GDP.

Things aren’t exactly going well in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Oil prices have fallen to $59 a barrel and the nation’s economy is on pace to contract between 4.5% and 4.7%—more than twice the contraction caused by our own Great Recession—if that price remains at $60 or below. Meanwhile, Russia is straining against American and European sanctions that are putting even more pressure on the country’s finances.

When the United States was facing recession, our Federal Reserve lowered interest rates to near-zero levels—and has kept them there. That stimulated the economy by making spending and investing more attractive (credit was cheap) and turning saving into a losing proposition (on top of low interest payments, money in the bank could potentially be eaten away by inflation).

But Russia has apparently adopted the opposite strategy. Instead of lowering rates to spur investment, the nation’s central bank has raised its key rate to a whopping 17%. That means simply leaving rubles in the bank will lead to extraordinarily high risk-free returns. Unless businesses can find an investment opportunity that will make them even higher returns, a very tall order, there’s no point in withdrawing any money. Why spend on a new store or factory when you’ll make more just letting your cash sit in a vault?

Read more Gorbachev Blames the U.S. for Provoking a ‘New Cold War’

It’s very likely, in other words, that Russia’s higher interest rates will slow its already slowing economy. Rosnef, a state-owned oil company, has already accused the central bank of “pushing Russia towards recession.”

But if that’s true, then why is Russia pursuing such a policy? The reason is that Russia has an arguably even more urgent problem than its slowing economy. Russia’s currency, the ruble, has been in free-fall as oil prices have dropped, and is now down 47% against the dollar since the beginning of the year. This is a big problem for Russian companies that need to pay their debt in dollars, and whose rubles are now worth nothing on international markets. Worse, Western economic sanctions have prevented businesses from accessing reserves of foreign currencies overseas. Without drastic action, Russia could find its economy permanently crippled by an all-but-worthless currency.

Since people selling their rubles for dollars is what’s pushing the currency down, the central bank has raised interest rates to make holding on to rubles more attractive. That’s meant to keep the currency’s value up, even at the expense of short-term economic growth.

The plan doesn’t appear to be working, however. Even after a massive jump in interest rates, the ruble has continued to crater. Economists are now suggesting Russia may be forced to impose capital controls—policies that would make trading rubles for dollars more difficult or expensive, or require exporters to convert dollars to rubles—to prevent a further sell-off.

Ultimately, anything short of an increase in oil prices is unlikely to do much good. Oil and gas revenues make up roughly half of Russia’s budget, and without that money, the country is in for rough times. “The central bank was too late with its move,” one expert told Bloomberg. “Without oil and the economy stabilizing, the ruble won’t rise.”

Read next: What Russia’s Ruble Collapse Means for the World

MONEY cell phones

Americans Spend More on Mobile Service Than the Rest of the World

Person using iPhone at night
Yiu Yu Hoi—Getty Images

We're not only spending more, unlike most countries', our wireless bills aren't going down.

Americans are spending more for wireless services than users in 17 other countries, according to a new report from a UK regulator.

The 2014 International Market Communications Report, published by the UK’s Office of Communications (known as Ofcom), measured the average monthly revenue per mobile connection in 18 different countries across six continents. The report shows that last year, the average mobile customer in the United States paid roughly $47 (£30, in the chart below) per connection, more than cell users in any other nation surveyed.

Only Japanese customers paid close to that amount in 2013, while users in most countries had monthly bills of less than $31 for their service. Mobile users in China, Brazil, Russia, Nigeria, Poland, and India paid less than $16 per month.

Screenshot 2014-12-15 10.30.17

Why are Americans paying so much more for wireless service? One reason is that we tend to use more data than people in other nations. According to data from Cisco, U.S. mobile customers used an average of 1.3 gigabytes of data per month in 2013. In comparison, Europeans used 700 megabytes of data per month—roughly half the American average—and mobile customers in the Middle East and Africa used just 185 megabytes.

But while increased data usage might explain the higher prices overall, it’s less clear why America is one of the few countries where the cost of wireless service isn’t declining. Despite global growth in data use, the United States is one of just five countries Ofcom analyzed (the others are the Netherlands, Sweden, Brazil, Russia, and the U.S.) where revenue per connection isn’t declining. Between 2008 and 2013, the average American customer saw wireless bills rise almost 1% per connection. Countries like France, Spain, and Italy saw cost reductions between 7.5% and 10% during that same time period.

MONEY Shopping

Why Gift Cards Are the Only Present That Makes Sense

Gift card on gold background
Khuong Hoang—Getty Images

The case for not wasting time in search of the perfect presents for your loved ones.

Let’s just say it: Gift cards are the best present for almost everyone on your list.

“Gift cards?!” you yell, monocle falling into your tea. “Who, other than your distant relations, would be so tacky? So gauche?

The answer? Most people. According to BankRate, 84% of Americans have received a gift card and 72% have given one. By the end of 2014, $124 billion dollars will have been loaded onto gift cards, and sales have been growing for years.

The case against gift cards is weak. (Though my colleague, Kara Brandeisky, begs to differ.) A recent Wall Street Journal article revealed that “only” 37% of consumers want a gift card this season, yet spun this news as a negative: “The novelty of gift cards has worn off,” Alison Paul, Deloitte’s vice chairman and retail sector leader, told the paper.

Really? Does more than a third of America wanting your product mean the “novelty has worn off?” If only we could all be that unsuccessful.

And the truth is, most of us will be unsuccessful when we shop for gifts this year. A 2014 survey from online retailer Rakuten showed almost three out of four Americans won’t like the gifts they receive this season. Let’s do some quick Moneyball here: Based on these two studies, most gifts have a 25% approval rating, while gift cards have a 37% approval rating. Gee, I wonder which one I should pick…

Faced with those statistics, the case against gift cards boils down to human insecurity. How will your friends know you really care about them if you don’t give them something special? It’s this fear that drives people to spend an average of 14 hours shopping for gifts. That’s more than half a day of your life spent stressing out, and for what?

“I got you a Star Wars ice cube tray because I know you like Star Wars (just like everyone else on the planet). I’m a real friend.”

Please. Does this type of vague, commercial knowledge of the people close to you—the type of knowledge that leads to thousands of tacky Han-Solo-in-Carbonite iPhone cases being given every year—actually demonstrate anything other than the commodification of companionship?

Gift cards, therefore, aren’t just the right gift for your friends, they’re the right gift for society. They cast aside our anxieties and pretensions to declare, “I’m so confident in our relationship that I have nothing to prove.” That’s therapeutic for everyone. In contrast, the stress of trying to accurately translate our feelings into an object—something that’s neither possible nor desirable—can actually be dangerous.

For proof, look no further than The Gift of the Maji, a classic O. Henry story in which two lovers set out to buy each other gifts. Despite their poverty, the wife scrapes together $20 to buy her husband a chain for his only possession: an old pocket watch. In order to pay for it, she sells her beautiful long hair. But the husband trades his watch to buy his wife ornamental hair combs, leaving them both with nothing of value.

There are a lot of lessons here, like don’t ever buy someone a hair comb, but let me get to the most important one: Wouldn’t they both have been happier with BestBuy gift cards?

Instead of getting caught up the need to be thoughtful, to the point where both parties sold their most treasured possessions for pretty mediocre presents, they could have spent their gift cards together and gotten a sweet flat screen. Maybe pop in Love Actually and talk about how their relationship is even more enduring than Hugh Grant’s aw-shucks routine. Now that’s what I call a Christmas.

What were we talking about? Oh right, gift cards. The point is that you’re statistically likely to buy an unwanted, meaningless present, so don’t get gray hairs over choosing the right one. Instead of stressing out, just put 25 bucks onto a piece of plastic and spend another 10 minutes writing a nice card. That’s almost guaranteed to go over better than anything else you could give.

Why not just give everyone cash, you may ask? Dude, that’s so tacky!

COUNTERPOINT: Why Gift Cards Are a Crime Against Christmas

MONEY ride sharing

How Uber Breaks the Rules (And Why You Should Care)

Uber sticker on car
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Not quite sure why ride-sharing app Uber is getting so much flack? Political muscle of the taxi industry is one answer. But there are legitimate safety concerns at stake.

Shawn Marquez doesn’t understand why this has to be so hard.

As acting director of Arizona’s Department of Weights and Measures, the body responsible for regulating the state’s cab services, he is responsible for enforcing some of the friendliest taxi rules in the nation. For just $24 a year, anyone in Arizona can drive a cab—and for liveries and limos, it’s free.

Just undergo some kind of background check and drug test — the state doesn’t even ask to see the documentation — have your vehicle inspected, and buy a commercial insurance policy that meets the state minimum of $300,000. For Uber, a company recently valued at $40 billion, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.

But the ridesharing company decided Arizona’s laws were still too much. “It was just a non-starter for those folks,” says Marquez. Uber refused to deviate from its policies, which include no preliminary drug screening and insurance coverage of just $50,000 per injury (and a max of $100,000 per ride) if a driver has not yet started a trip when the accident occurs. The company continues to operate illegally in Arizona, leaving motorists and pedestrians on the hook in the event of an accident involving one of the ridesharing company’s vehicles. (Uber did not respond to requests for comment.)

That situation is mirrored in Portland, where taxi drivers are also required to hold insurance of at least $500,000 per-incident. This week the company decided to launch its service in Portland in defiance of the law, triggering a lawsuit by the city. And Uber is having similar disputes with municipalities around the country and around the world.

Of course, the risk inherent in these situations is not hypothetical. On New Year’s Eve 2013, a San Francisco Uber driver struck and killed 6-year-old Sofia Liu and injured other family members as they crossed a street. Uber’s $1 million insurance coverage was not triggered because the driver didn’t have a fare, and only after the accident did Uber institute its $50,000 per-injury between-fare policy. That left Liu’s family without compensation and $200,000 in medical bills. (San Francisco law, meanwhile, requires traditional taxis to carry $1 million of commercial liability insurance at all times, even between fares.)

Insurance is only part of Uber’s apparent disregard for safety regulations. Many municipalities require taxi drivers to undergo a fingerprint background check that is run through Department of Justice and F.B.I. databases. Preliminary drug testing is also a common requirement. Uber does perform background checks on its drivers, but uses a third-party service called Hirease that does not use government databases or require fingerprints. And drivers are screened for narcotics only after passengers lodge a complaint. The company has fought efforts in Chicago, Arizona, California, and elsewhere to make Uber submit to the same background check and drug-testing rules that conventional taxis are required to follow.

Uber has responded to criticism of its screening efforts by claiming Hirease’s background checks are superior to those required of traditional cab companies. But many lawmakers and officials disagree. On Tuesday, district attorneys from San Francisco and Los Angeles filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Uber, accusing the company of misleading customers about its safety practices. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon called Uber’s background checks “completely worthless” because they do not involve fingerprinting drivers.

That sentiment is echoed by Adrin Nazarian, a California assemblyman who sponsored a bill that would require Uber drivers to get fingerprint background checks and submit to drug and alcohol testing. After resistance by Uber, the bill was defeated. “No private background check can compete with state-run background checks,” said Nazarian in an interview with the New York Times.

Back in Arizona, Marquez has his work cut out for him. He says Uber not only ignores the Arizona law, but also neglects to tell drivers these laws exist. “When we do stop drivers, I swear they tell us, ‘Wow I had no idea. The company told me I was good to go,'” says Marquez.

He still wonders why Uber won’t just follow the rules. “Some areas regulate how many cars you can have, their color, their year, how much the price is. In Arizona we don’t do any of that,” Marquez notes. “You can have purple cars with stars and stripes as long as you have the insurance.”

 

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