London, United Kingdom - Controversial car-ride booking application Uber says it has tightened security after user accounts were hacked and hit with hefty bills for phantom journeys.

The minicab service, which called in US authorities in May after being rocked by reports that users had money withdrawn for trips they did not book or make, insists the new measures are having a "dramatic" effect.

The development comes as the impact of Uber on London's iconic black cabs has strained the industry's ties with outgoing Mayor Boris Johnson and fuelled a war of words over plans to curb the number of minicabs in the British capital.

Uber, a $40bn San Francisco-based technology company backed by search giant Google, has expanded rapidly around the world and in London alone now has 15,000 drivers working through its app.

This time I noticed and called the driver who challenged him - he got out of the car and ran away.

Andrew Lang, Uber customer

But earlier this year reports highlighted claims by Uber users in the UK, US, and France among other countries - including prominent British television presenter Anthea Turner - that their accounts had been compromised.

In one case, record producer Mick Crossley told journalists he had been hit with a bill for a staggering 3,000 pounds ($4,700) for 142 journeys that he did not take.  

Andrew Lang from Al Jazeera's operations department was in Doha when someone in London tried to compromise his Uber account. Quick-thinking Lang managed to foil the attempt with a phone call to the driver of the minicab.

"The culprit clearly made a couple of test bookings in London, cancelled them immediately and then waited a few hours to see if I would react. When I didn't, he assumed I was asleep or on holiday and made his real booking. This time I noticed and called the driver who challenged him - he got out of the car and ran away," Lang said.

Many of the users who claimed their accounts had been compromised were unhappy with what they felt was a lacklustre response by Uber to their complaints.

Lang said Uber's reaction to a complaint that he made was "slow and a very clever mixture of sympathy and denial that their systems are at fault in any way".

Nevertheless, Uber has refunded money lost by hacked customers and in May it confirmed that it had notified US authorities about fraudulent use of its accounts.

Security 'not breached'

Uber has consistently denied that security has been compromised at the technology company itself, insisting that its own investigations revealed no evidence of a breach.

The company believes the most likely explanation for the hacks was a data breach on another e-commerce website.

Reports in the US suggested that it is possible hackers managed to steal passwords from other sites.

In March, the Vice Motherboard technology blog alleged that active Uber accounts - mainly those in the UK - were being sold by cyber-criminals on the so-called "dark web". In May, a hacker showed Motherboard how accounts could be broken into using cracking programs and multiple login attempts.

Uber told Al Jazeera it has now beefed up security to limit the risk to users.

"Uber has obviously taken this issue very seriously. We are of course still helping the authorities with their investigations, and as such can't give details," a spokesman for the smartphone app in the UK said. 


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"We have now put extra security measures in place - including having to re-enter card payment details if signing into Uber on a new device - this has had a dramatic effect in combating this issue."

The app company has ruled out any organised attempt to discredit it.

"We believe that this is just simple criminal activity," said the Uber spokesman. "The only accounts that were compromised were ones that shared login details with other e-commerce companies that had been the victims of data breaches over the last year or so."

War of words

The hacking storm comes amid a war of words in London over policy towards minicabs that could determine the fortunes of the controversial application.

Uber has spoken out against plans by Mayor Johnson to press for a new law to limit the number of minicabs operating in London - now standing at more than 78,000 - ostensibly to cut congestion but widely seen as an attempt to curb the rise of the US app.

Uber executives have requested the chance to debate the issue with the mayor, and argue that capping the industry's ability to grow would mean higher prices for Londoners.

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"Uber believes that limiting the number of private hire licenses will limit supply causing prices to rise," said the company spokesman.

"This will force people back into their own cars and create more congestion and pollution. We have asked to meet the mayor to discuss this, however he has declined a meeting," the Uber spokesman said.

Transport for London (TfL), the city's transport authority, is reviewing the taxi market but faces a difficult task finding a balance between the popularity of Uber and existing taxi interests.

The city's long-established black cabs - a global symbol of the British capital - have been at the forefront of criticism of the app, which they see as a threat to their trade.

The London Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) argues that lack of regulation skews the market in favour of Uber, which uses GPS technology to calculate fares. According to the black cab trade, this breaches laws forbidding minicabs from fitting taximeters in vehicles.

In a recent campaign, the LTDA also claimed that Uber does not pay tax in the UK - a charge rejected by the company.

"We pay taxes in every country we operate in and comply with all local and international tax laws - this includes the UK," the Uber spokesman told Al Jazeera. 

The black cab trade has made a string of complaints about the policies of TfL, which the mayor oversees, blaming Johnson for what one cabbie called "an extremely laissez-faire attitude to a centuries-old industry".

Last December, a cross-party report by the London Assembly, the city's legislature, said TfL's regulation of the cab industry was "woefully inadequate".

In a sign of strained relations, Mayor Johnson was recently filmed in a foul-mouthed exchange with a black cab driver while cycling in the city. Footage shows Johnson shouting obscenities at the driver.

The mayor found unexpected sympathy from a political opponent, Jenny Jones of the
Green party, who wrote that as a cyclist she was left "wondering if the old-fashioned pride that cabbies once quite rightly took in their jobs has turned to arrogance".

Source: Al Jazeera