Uber backtracks on price hikes during Sydney drama

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SYDNEY (AP) — The cab-hailing company Uber was promising free rides and refunds Monday for people fleeing central Sydney after coming under criticism for hiking prices during a hostage crisis that was unfolding there.

Technology news website Mashable reported that Uber was briefly charging customers a minimum fare of 100 Australian dollars ($82) and four times the usual per-mile rate to leave the city center. Uber said on its smartphone app that the rates had been increased because "Demand is off the charts!" according to Mashable.

But Uber, which offers a service based on hailing taxis from its app, quickly backtracked after an outcry on social media.

The company explained that it had used automatic "surge pricing" to encourage more drivers to get online and pick up passengers.

It wrote Monday on its Sydney blog that it was in the process of refunding people who had already paid the excessive fares and was giving free rides to others wanting to leave.

"We are all concerned with the events happening in Sydney," Uber wrote on the blog, adding that its thoughts were with those affected by the crisis and the New South Wales police force.

Many users had earlier expressed outrage: "you are horrible. Taking advantage of a situation to make a buck. If u were the only way home, I'D WALK!" wrote one person on Twitter under the hashtag #ubersydney.

The crisis began Monday morning when a gunman took an unknown number of hostages at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in downtown Sydney. The usually busy area became deserted as Christmas shoppers fled, offices were evacuated and streets closed.

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