Musical duo Lexie Jay and Jon Fedorsen had pulled over to check driving directions in downtown Toronto, when two well-dressed strangers opened the hatchback of the band’s SUV and started loading their luggage into the trunk.
Ms. Jay turned around to ask what they were doing, “and they said, with confidence, that they would like to go to the airport,” she recalled. Realizing they must have mistaken their vehicle for a ride-hailing service, Ms. Jay laughed.
The would-be passengers were mortified. “They awkwardly began to extract their oversize bags from the trunk, exclaiming, ‘Sorry, We thought you were our Uber!’” Ms. Jay said.
Ride-hailing vehicles have become ubiquitous in cities around the world, increasing the odds of mistaken encounters between prospective passengers and unsuspecting everyday drivers.
Today, Uber counts more than 1.5 million drivers in its global fleet, while Lyft has about 700,000. The drivers, who get connected through a smartphone app to passengers seeking rides, use their personal vehicles to transport those riders.
That means most Uber and Lyft vehicles look like regular cars on the road, so just about anyone can pass for a ride—though drivers in newer-model hatchbacks, sedans and midlevel SUVs appear most at risk.
After emceeing and performing a 15-minute set at Acme Comedy Co. in Minneapolis, comedian Derek Henkels retrieved his black minivan and doubled back to pick up fellow comedian Tracey Ashley, who had headlined the evening.
But when he pulled up to Acme’s crowded entrance, a couple he didn’t know started yanking on the backdoor handles and knocking on the passenger-side window.
Mr. Henkels shook his head politely to shoo them away but they only became more persistent, and he started to wonder why they didn’t recognize him from his appearances several times on stage throughout the night.
“Maybe what I do is not that important,” he said, reflecting on the incident. “I’d probably do better as an Uber driver.”
Eventually he pointed to a similar minivan up the street and the couple moved on.
Simran Jeet Singh, a religion professor who lives in New York City, said he was waiting for his wife and daughter outside their building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side when an older couple got in the back seat.
“I said, ‘I’m not an Uber driver,’ and they were really confused,” the 32-year-old Mr. Singh recalled. “Then the woman said, ‘Well, we really need to go here, can you take us anyway? We’ll pay you.”
Mr. Singh, who is a Sikh, said it wasn’t the first time he has been mistaken for a ride-hailing driver and he figures it’s at least partly because he wears a turban.
“So many taxi drivers in New York are immigrants and a lot are Sikhs,” said Mr. Singh, who was born and raised in Texas.
He said many of his South Asian and Sikh friends have had the same experience, which has become a running joke.
“At least once a week or so I’ll see a post from a friend on Facebook or Twitter saying, ‘I’ve been confused for an Uber driver again!’” he said, adding that when he mentioned this particular experience to friends, a few joked that he “should have asked how much they were willing to pay.”
For those on the other side of a mistaken ride-hailing connection, the experience can be equally jarring.
Cameron Fox-Revett, a songwriter in Toronto, recalled an early morning last fall when he ordered an Uber to drive him to the recording studio. Wearing noise-canceling headphones, as he often does, Mr. Fox-Revett walked out of his apartment, spotted a Honda Civic parked with headlights on and assumed it was his ride.
It wasn’t until he’d finished loading his heavy recording equipment, including a large microphone and stand into the back seat, that he noticed the agitated driver waving his hands and asking what he was doing.
The driver was “horrified,” he said. “It was a cocktail of emotions.”
Adding to the awkwardness of the moment, after unloading his equipment Mr. Fox-Revett had to wait another four minutes for the ride he’d actually ordered to appear—all while trying to avoid making further eye contact with the Civic driver.
Representatives from Uber and Lyft said riders must remember to check a car’s license-plate number, make and model, and to confirm the driver’s name before getting into any ride-hailing car. Both apps provide that information to the rider as soon as a driver accepts their ride request.
“You technically should be looking at the app before you get into a car,” said Alexandra LaManna, a spokeswoman for Lyft.
Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Uber, advises passengers that getting into cars with drivers that haven’t been vetted by the company could be dangerous.
She also has advice for non-Uber drivers set upon by would-be customers: “Just politely let the passenger know that you’re not with Uber.”
In a few cities the services recently started using lighted placards—which drivers attach to their windshields—that change colors to match the display in the passenger’s app, making it easier to identify which ride is theirs on a crowded street. Both companies are providing the devices to drivers free of charge.
Not every unwitting rendezvous ends poorly.
Josh Aldrete, a junior at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, had parked his Toyota Prius in a lot on campus before his macroeconomics class when he heard someone open the back door. He thought it might be a friend playing a joke until he heard a young woman’s voice asking if he was ready to go.
Mr. Aldrete laughed and explained to the freshman student that he wasn’t a ride-hailing driver. But when she started collecting her things to leave, he gave it a second thought and offered to take her wherever she needed to go.
Both companies cautioned riders not to get into a car with anyone they didn’t hail through the app, since doing so negates any safety protections provided by the companies—such as GPS tracking—and leaves them vulnerable to scams.
But Mr. Aldrete said he was OK with doing a favor for a fellow student. He said he drove her about three minutes to the grocery store and dropped her off. The conversation was slightly forced but cordial, he said, and she remained in the back seat.
Mr. Aldrete said he has seen her a few times on campus since the ride, though he still hasn’t talked to her since that day.
“I tried to keep it as Uber-ish as possible,” he said.