JFK taxi dispatch system hacked, New York men arrested for conspiracy

Arriving passengers line up to take a taxi outside Terminal 4 at JFK Airport in New York.

Joy Samad | AFP | Getty Images

Two New York men were arrested for conspiring with Russian nationals to hack the taxi dispatch system at John F. Kennedy International Airport so they could rig the line and charge drivers to get to the front of the queue, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

Daniel Abayev and Peter Leyman, both 48, were arrested Tuesday morning in Queens and charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, prosecutors for the Southern District of New York announced.

Beginning in 2019, the two allegedly worked with Russian-based hackers to infiltrate JFK’s taxi dispatch system by bribing someone to install malware on computers connected to the system, stealing computer tablets and using Wi-Fi to break in, prosecutors alleged.

“I know the Pentagon is being hacked … so we can’t hack the taxi industry[?]Abayev allegedly sent a text message to one of the hackers in November 2019, according to the indictment against him.

Once the hackers successfully gained access to the dispatch system, Abayev and Leyman were able to move specific taxis to the front of the line and began charging drivers $10 to skip the queue, the fiscal

Typically, taxi drivers looking to pick up passengers at JFK wait in a lot before being sent to a specific terminal in the order they arrived. The process can take hours and the waiting time can have a significant impact on how much money a taxi driver can make in a day.

Prosecutors estimate that Abayev and Leyman were able to rig up to 1,000 taxi rides a day over the course of the scheme, which ran from roughly November. 2019 to November 2020.

“As alleged in the indictment, these two defendants — with the help of Russian hackers — took the Port Authority for a ride,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District, in a statement.

Drivers learned of the scheme through word of mouth and some were even allowed to cut the line for free if they agreed to hire other taxi drivers who were willing to pay, prosecutors alleged .

“For years, the defendants’ hacking prevented honest taxi drivers from collecting fares at JFK in the order in which they arrived,” Williams said.

The suspects are scheduled to appear before Judge Gabriel Gorenstein later Tuesday. They face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. It is not clear if they had hired a lawyer.

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