The story from The Sun is probably quite bogus, although impossible to prove as such. What can be found in other less dubious sources is that Uber had (and probably still has) a MLM (multi-level marketing) scheme basically in which it is possible to make money without driving, as long as you sign up other drivers for the service.
Uber has a system where it rewards new driver bonuses to people who sign up for its service and complete a certain number of rides. If they sign up through another driver's referral code, then both parties get a bonus. [...]
Ziyaee spends a lot of time finding out what areas have the most valuable referral bonuses. Cities that need drivers more desperately will offer higher rewards for each new person who signs on. [...]
Although Ziyaee has been incredibly successful, he's not alone in his approach of making money off of Uber without driving. A quick Google search reveals a bunch of other budding entrepreneurs.
I would not be surprised if a guy engaged in this MLM-wise was also peddling the idea that Uber paid money for just turning on the app... as that would get him more referrals from the marks falling for those claims.
Uber also paid drivers to astroturf/protest against some laws/regulations, but that's also work.
There is one source that lends some credence to the original claim, but not as an hourly figure:
The cost of acquiring drivers has been one of the most expensive parts of running Uber since its inception. In Uber’s early years, new drivers got sign-up bonuses as high as $2,000 or $5,000 just for completing a few rides on the app.
Today, referral bonuses have been scaled down significantly, but Uber still spends billions per year marketing itself to new drivers, paying out on other incentives, and financing driver vehicles. In 2018, Uber spent more than $3.1B on sales and marketing, plus nearly $900M on excess driver incentives.
Part of the problem for Uber is driver churn. Only about 20% of drivers remain on Uber’s platform after one year, The Information has reported — equivalent to about 12.5% monthly churn.
If we set aside 80% of all Uber’s monthly sales & marketing spend for driver acquisition, plus partner incentives, we end up with an average driver acquisition cost of about $650.
Today, according to its S-1 filing, Uber has 3.9M drivers around the world. Each month, those drivers generate a little more than $3.4B in gross bookings. Of this, Uber makes about $900M: that works out to a revenue per driver per month of about $230.
This means Uber earns back what it spent to acquire a driver within just about three months. [...]
Despite ads claiming drivers could earn $90,000 a year or on average, make $25 an hour, the average take-home pay of an Uber driver in the United States today — after expenses — is still only about $10 an hour. At 40 hours a week with a family of two, that is near or at the poverty line.
I suppose with two or more drivers (a family) and if Lyft offered similar sign-up bonuses, it might have been possible to net $20,000 while doing almost nothing in those early days, but it does sound like a tall story.
Presumably one might have also been able to scam Uber of their high initial referral fees if one were willing to engage in identity theft (I think Uber always required a SSN to sign up as a driver; it does now), but also there was the issue of payment method, etc. So not trivial to pull off without also a multitude of bank accounts and/or accomplices/mules.
According to CNET, which doesn't give any examples though
Fraudsters have signed up as drivers to get fees on fake cancellations, and cheated passengers with bogus discount rides offered on messaging boards and chat rooms.
Another way to make money while violating the Uber terms of service is to make and sell accounts to people who would not qualify as drivers.