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Eastern North Dakota Lyft driver charged in 'vomit fraud' cases

A Lyft driver allegedly threw cheese sauce on the outside of his vehicle and tried to claim passenger Ricky Marquart did it. The driver tried to defraud Marquart of $150 to cover the cost of the damage. The practice is known as vomit fraud.

'Vomit fraud' is a criminal matter, after all.

A Harwood, N.D., man who served as an Uber and Lyft driver has been charged with theft in two cases from last summer when he allegedly faked damage to his vehicle and tried to charge passengers to cover repair costs.

Travis James Roland was charged in West Fargo municipal court last week with two counts of attempted theft of property, Class B misdemeanors that are punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 or 30 days in jail, or both.

The complaints were filed by West Fargo police, which would constitute a change in policy for the department. A West Fargo police spokesman earlier this year said it treated so-called vomit fraud cases as civil matters, not criminal ones, because customers agree to broad, company-friendly terms when they sign up to use ride-share services.

Vomit fraud is a relatively new phenomenon, thanks to the rising popularity of ride-share businesses like Lyft and Uber. In an attempt to defraud customers out of up to $150, drivers will fake damage to their vehicles and charge passengers a fee to "repair" it. It is common in some tourist destinations like Miami. It often goes unnoticed because the fee is tacked onto the rider's credit card. Or it goes unchallenged because drivers usually attempt to defraud intoxicated passengers. It is uncommon in the Fargo-Moorhead area, police spokesmen say.

Here's the background, from a column I wrote in August:

West Fargo resident Ricky Marquart ordered a Lyft ride home from a high school class reunion in June. After the driver, identified as Travis on the Lyft app, dropped him off, a receipt was emailed to him for $9.01. Later, another receipt titled "Lyft Damage Receipt" was emailed with an additional charge of $150.

Ricky told his wife Tiffany that he didn't do damage to the vehicle, so Tiffany sent emails to Lyft customer service saying she believed the driver submitted a false damage claim. The company responded with a message saying the driver submitted photographic and anecdotal evidence of the damage, attaching three photos.

Tiffany is a compliance analyst with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of North Dakota whose job it is to dig into and investigate claims. So she dug and investigated. Through some tremendous sleuthing, she concluded the driver stopped at a convenience store to buy food and threw it on the outside and inside of his vehicle to make it look like Ricky had caused damage. Security video from the Holiday store on Fargo's 45th Street South corroborated Tiffany's theory, even confirming the driver took photos of the alleged damage and then ran the vehicle through a car wash.

Tiffany contacted Lyft with her evidence and the company removed the damage charge from the Marquarts' credit card. But the company wouldn't respond when Tiffany asked what it was going to do about the driver. The Marquarts contacted West Fargo police, who said they wouldn't investigate because they treated such situations as civil matters.

"This guy tried to steal $150. We were lucky because we were able to figure it out and get our money back," Ricky said in my August column. "But how many other people are being taken advantage of? How does this get changed? Can citizens crack down on this? Who is going to help?"

After my column ran, another West Fargo resident contacted me and said that he, too, had a driver named Travis who tried to defraud him. Alex Pfeifer and his friend, Cody Sivertson, got an Uber ride about a week after Ricky Marquart's incident and the driver made a damage claim of $150 to Pfeifer's credit card, saying the passengers spilled liquid on the back seat of his vehicle.

The column apparently spurred action from the West Fargo police, too. The Marquarts said police contacted them shortly after it ran and promised to investigate.

The investigation culminated Oct. 24 when Detective Joe Birrenkott filed attempted theft of property charges against Roland in both cases. Roland is scheduled to appear in municipal court Nov. 21.

There might be more cases coming.

"I'm relieved he will have consequences for his actions," Tiffany Marquart said. "Hopefully he thinks before doing something like this to someone else."