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Uber, drivers fined $44,000 after county sting

The popular ride-sharing service Uber and six of its drivers were fined more than $44,000 by Palm Beach County officials Thursday for operating illegally in the county’s southern region.

Palm Beach County Assistant Administrator Vince Bonvento said the county’s consumer affairs division conducted a series of stings in Boca Raton and Delray Beach on Thursday, issuing a total of 30 citations to Uber and its drivers for operating without county-issued permits, identification badges, and decals and proper liability insurance.

The San Francisco-based company was issued 24 citations, with fines of $1,650 each. The drivers, whose names were not released, each face $750 in fines.

“Deliberately targeting driver partners for providing safe, reliable rides and earning a living is an abuse of power and a deliberate attempt to protect an entrenched industry,” Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett said Thursday night. “We will continue to deliver access to the choice and opportunity the people of Palm Beach deserve, and will defend our partners against these unjust citations.”

Palm Beach County commissioners on Tuesday are set to discuss Uber and other transportation network companies, like Lyft. In December, commissioners agreed to discuss ways to allow Uber to legally operate in the county.

Bonvento said the timing of Thursday’s sting, which was conducted with the help of others in the vehicle-for-hire industry, was not tied to Tuesday’s commission meeting. County inspectors have conducted weekly stings in search of Uber drivers operating without proper permits and insurance.

As of Thursday, the county had issued about 80 citations to Uber and its drivers for operating here, Bonvento said.

“We aren’t doing this because it is on the agenda Tuesday,” Bonvento said.

Bonvento said the county asked representatives of the taxi industry and other vehicle-for-hire companies for help with Thursday’s sting. As a result of the county’s crackdown on Uber, many operators recognize county officials’ phone numbers when they request a ride.

“Once they recognize the numbers, they understand it is probably a sting and they don’t respond,” Bonvento said. Thursday “we requested the assistance of some of the vehicle-for-hire industry. The numbers weren’t recognized.”

Uber has drawn the ire of taxi drivers nationwide who argue the company doesn’t comply with the government regulations and safety standards they must meet.

Uber announced last year that it was expanding its app-based service to West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale with prices that are 27 percent less than a taxi. The service allows users to tap the app on their smartphone to call for a vehicle, which can be anything from a limo to a four-door sedan.

Uber representatives say the company is technology-based, and simply provides a platform linking drivers and passengers. It doesn’t own vehicles or employ drivers, they contend.

All Uber driver partners must undergo company screening, including a background check, a driving history check and ongoing quality controls.

Uber driver partners are required to have four-door, mid- to full-size vehicles that are no more than 10 years old. The company says it also has its own commercial insurance policy that covers drivers and passengers.

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