Two Men Arrested for JFK Taxi Dispatch Hack, Conspiring With Russians

They're charged with two counts each of conspiracy to commit computer intrusions and face up to 10 years in prison.

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Taxi drivers wait at the holding lot at JFK International Airport
Photo: Spencer Platt / Staff (Getty Images)

Today, in conjunction with the Port Authority, the Southern District of New York announced that it had arrested two men for allegedly hacking the taxi dispatch system at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Suspects Daniel Abayev and Peter Leyman were each charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit computer intrusions and face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

According to the press release, “Taxi drivers are required to wait in a holding lot at JFK before they are dispatched to pick up a fare. A computer system ensures that taxis are dispatched in the order in which they arrived. ABAYEV and LEYMAN conspired with Russian nationals to hack the Dispatch System and move certain taxis to the front of the line, in exchange for payment.”

Taxi drivers picking up riders at the airport are required to wait in a holding lot until they are dispatched by the system to go to a terminal. While the wait can be several hours, the system was designed to send drivers out in about the order they came in. In 2019, Abayev and Leyman are accused of trying out several ways to gain access to the dispatch system such as “bribing someone to insert a flash drive containing malware into computers connected to the Dispatch System, obtaining unauthorized access to the Dispatch System via a Wi-Fi connection, and stealing computer tablets connected to the Dispatch System.”

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SDNY claims to have text message evidence of the conspiracy, including a message Abayev sent one of the hackers in Russia that read, “I know that the Pentagon is being hacked[.]. So, can’t we hack the taxi industry[?]”

Between November 2019 and November 2020, they allegedly managed to hack the dispatch system multiple times. Once they had access, they are said to have charged taxi drivers $10 each to move to the front of the line. Word reportedly spread among taxi drivers by word of mouth, as well as allowing drivers to avoid paying the fee if they recruited other drivers to join in on the scheme. At its peak, they’re said to have illegally expedited 1,000 taxi rides per day.

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“As alleged in the indictment, these two defendants — with the help of Russian hackers — took the Port Authority for a ride. For years, the defendants’ hacking kept honest cab drivers from being able to pick up fares at JFK in the order in which they arrived. Now, thanks to this Office’s teamwork with the Port Authority, these defendants are facing serious criminal charges for their alleged cybercrimes,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement.