Russian hackers have carried out cyberattacks on hospitals, oil and gas companies, a presidential election and a massive fuel pipeline. But cyberwarfare reached a new battlefield on Tuesday when the authorities said that two Queens men working with Russians had been able to hack the electronic taxi dispatch system at Kennedy International Airport.
The goal? To allow taxi drivers in a holding lot waiting to pick up their next fare to jump the line — for a $10 fee.
The Queens men discussed their plans in messages to their Russian counterparts, a federal indictment charged. The defendants credited that nation’s hackers with great technical prowess.
“I know that the Pentagon is being hacked,” one of the defendants, Daniel Abayev, wrote. “So, can’t we hack the taxi industry?”
On Tuesday, Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, and John Gay, the inspector general of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, announced the indictments of Mr. Abayev and another man, Peter Leyman, each 48.
“The Port Authority has zero tolerance for bad actors violating the law at our facilities,” Mr. Gay said in a statement.
The scheme “enabled as many as 1,000 fraudulently expedited taxi trips a day,” the indictment said.
Each defendant was charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. Mr. Abayev’s lawyer, Matthew Myers, said his client would plead not guilty.
“A proper investigation must be conducted before anyone jumps to conclusions about the involvement or role Mr. Abayev did or did not play in this international matter,” Mr. Myers said.
Mr. Leyman’s lawyer, Jacob Kaplan, declined to comment.
On Tuesday afternoon, drivers waiting in the airport holding lot, which was packed to capacity, suggested in interviews that the scheme had been an open secret.
Sasenarine Singh, a cabdriver since 1975, said he learned about it from indiscreet drivers waiting inside the lot.
Whenever he spotted a yellow cab sitting in a nearby gas station lot or side street, he said, he presumed the driver was part of what he called “the monkey business.”
Mr. Singh said he did not join in: “I come in the lot, I wait like a human being.”
Mr. Singh said he felt “most angry about it,” adding “they come and take a job away from you.”
Another driver, Alhousain Diallo, 34, said he knew about the scheme from other cabbies trying to recruit him in. Mr. Diallo said he turned everyone down. “It’s unfair to the other taxi drivers,” he said.
Nearly 30 years ago, the airport created a taxi dispatching system to control the mad jockeying of yellow cabs that cruised the roads surrounding the terminals in search of passengers. Drivers were directed to park in a new holding lot — now 5.4 acres — just north of the airport. Cabs would be dispatched in the order they arrived to terminals where they were needed, airport officials said at the time.
The Port Authority says that today, during peak periods, as many as 300 to 400 cabs an hour are dispatched, and that during early-morning hours, when passenger demand is lower, drivers may wait in the lot for two to three hours before being sent to a terminal to pick up a fare.
Those long waits gave the hackers an opening.
The $10 bite was a significant proportion of cabbies’ revenue: They are allowed to charge a flat fare of $52 for trips to Manhattan, plus surcharges during peak hours.
Members of the hacking scheme, including Mr. Abayev and Mr. Leyman, began exploring ways to gain access to the dispatch system in 2019, the indictment says. Eventually, they succeeded, and were able to move specific taxis to the front of the line, ahead of those that had arrived in the lot earlier.
The defendants communicated with drivers through large group chat threads, the indictment says, adding that when the conspirators gained access to the system on a particular day, a message would be sent: “Shop open.” When the hackers’ access was interrupted, another message would go out: “Shop closed.”
As the indictment describes the scheme, drivers paid the $10 fee in cash or through a mobile payment system. Sometimes, the fee was waived if the driver agreed to recruit other cabbies. To take advantage of the scheme, approaching drivers would send their taxi medallion numbers to the group chat threads and were told which terminal to go to in order to pick up a fare.
In early December 2019, just months after the scheme began, the indictment says, Mr. Abayev sent a voice message to one of the Russian hackers, saying they had charged for a record number of trips that day.
“This is exactly the level that I want to have every day,” Mr. Abayev said.
Mr. Abayev and Mr. Leyman moved more than $100,000 of their criminal proceeds to the hackers in Russia, the indictment says.
Mr. Abayev also repeatedly sent a message to large groups of drivers participating in the scheme instructing them how to avoid detection by law enforcement authorities.
“DEAR DRIVERS !!!! PLEASE !!!! Do not wait at the gas station in JFK,” the message said, listing other locations where drivers also should not wait. Drivers should be “very very” careful, the message cautioned, ending with two emojis of police officers.
At the holding lot on Tuesday, drivers who said they were unaware of the scheme expressed anger upon learning about it, lavishing their comments with profanities.
“Why did they do that?” said Ahmed Motaher, 54, a driver for more than 30 years.
He said he was relieved to learn about the arrests because he knew how many ways cabbies could be taken advantage of. “Cabdriver always get the banana,” he said.
Henry Fernandez, 50, who said he started driving only recently and that he was unaware of the hacking, added that he was not surprised to hear about “wiggles” in the industry.
“I don’t think it’s fair, I don’t think it’s nice,” he said.
However, one hour into an expected three-hour wait in the lot, he said he understood the temptation.
“I’m being honest, I’d give $10 to skip the line, I’d give $20,” he said. “I don’t blame them — they were smart.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.