August 31, 2017

The Mystery of Why Uber Gave Me 77 Free Rides (or, How I Accidentally Gamed The System)

For about two and a half years, Uber kept sending me free ride credits. I just went through my receipts and counted 77 free rides in total, averaging one every couple weeks. Then they suddenly stopped. All that time, I never knew why I was getting them — why look a gift horse in the mouth? — but once they stopped I put on my detective hat and did a little digging. I’m pretty sure I’ve solved the mystery. Follow my story and see if you can figure it out.

When I joined Uber in 2011 I was given the opportunity to create any referral code I wanted as long as it started with the word “uber” (I think they still let you do that, actually) so I just added my initials to it and made the code UBERDF figuring that would be easy for me to remember. I might have given it out to a couple people, but then pretty much forgot about it.

Then in late 2013, the trickle of free rides started. I’d get an email saying I earned $10, $15, or $20 in credit because someone took their first ride using my referral code. At first I assumed someone I gave my code to in 2011 finally used it. Then when more free rides came in, I wondered if perhaps my code was on some list of Uber referral codes that may have been circulating. I didn’t really think more about it. I just accumulated my free rides in my account, ready to use when I needed them. It was great. Sometimes I even forced myself to use them instead of the subway, since they would eventually expire otherwise.

I casually looked into whether this was happening to anyone else. The closest thing I found was an article about a guy who placed online ads for Uber using his own referral code and got hundreds of free rides that way. Uber found out about his scheme and took them away. So I was glad that my trickle of free rides was a slow drip that was unlikely to get their attention.

Then, around January of 2016, they stopped. At their peak I was getting 2-3 free rides a week. And then nothing. I couldn’t be too upset that I had to start paying for something everyone else paid for, but I was curious what happened. And since I wasn’t getting any more free rides anyway, I was no longer afraid to look into it.

I started at the source. Each email about a free ride just told me that my “friend” rode with Uber so I was getting a free ride. It didn’t say who the “friend” was. But I discovered that if I logged into Uber’s website, I could see the first name of the person that took the ride that earned me each credit. They had names like Miguel, Juan, Antonio, Garbriela, Alejandro, Rosa Maria, etc. They were all Spanish names. That was a big clue. But what did it tell me?

Maybe whatever list my code was on circulated mainly on Spanish websites? That seemed unlikely. So I did what I probably should have done to begin with: I Googled “uberdf”. And that’s when I discovered that Uber in Mexico City is sometimes referred to as “Uber DF”.

It turns out that Mexico City isn’t called Mexico City in Mexico. They call it the Federal District, or in Spanish, the Distrito Federal. Uber in Mexico City launched in late 2013, around the time my free rides started. I assume that a lot of people simply tried the code UBERDF to see if it worked and lo and behold it did! In fact, when Uber launched in Mexico City their actual promo code was DFLAUNCH, so UBERDF was not that wild a guess. My conclusion is that, given the large number of people in Mexico City, enough people guessed that UBERDF might be valid, and I accidentally reaped the benefit.

So what happened in January 2016 that caused the well to dry up? Something happened that month that convinced me my theory is correct because the timing is just too coincidental. Mexico City officially changed its name from Distrito Federal to Mexico City (or in Spanish, Ciudad de Mexico — or CDMX for short). People stopped trying the code “UBERDF” and that was the end of my free ride. And perhaps it was the beginning of a similar mystery for whoever has the referral code UBERCDMX.

Afterthought: I should have made my referral code UBERNYC, and then maybe I’d still be getting free rides.


This is a devious/fantastic ploy to keep the gravy train rolling, isn’t it?

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