Posted on December 21, 2022 at 9:08 AM
Russian hackers have been targeting multiple institutions within the United States, including hospitals and oil companies. The recent exploit conducted by these hackers was on the electronic taxi dispatch system at the Kennedy International Airport.
Russian hackers target a cab dispatch line at JFK
The goal of the hackers was to allow the taxi drivers within the holding lot to jump the line by paying a $10 fee. The authorities revealed the operations of two Queens men who discussed their plans using messages sent to their Russian counterparts. One of the defendants, Daniel Abayev, had written to his counterparts that after hacking the Pentagon, the other hack should be on the taxi industry.
US attorney for Manhattan, Damian Williams, alongside the inspector general of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, John Gay, indicted Abayev and another individual known as Peter Leyman. Gay noted that the Port Authority did not tolerate bad actors who violated the law.
The indictment notes that the scheme allowed around 1000 taxi trips that were made fraudulently. The two defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. However, the lawyer representing Abayev, Matthew Myers, said his client would not plead guilty.
Myers noted that thorough investigations were needed before the matter was concluded to determine whether Abayev played a role in the exploit. Taxi drivers within the airport’s holding lots have admitted that the scheme existed.
In a report by the New York Times, one of the drivers at the airport, Sasenarine Singh, said that he learned about this scheme from other drivers waiting within the lot. Singh noted that he did not participate in the scheme, but he was angry about its existence because it denied other drivers a chance and was unfair to others.
The indictment says that the defendants contacted these drivers using group chat threads. It noted that after the hackers accessed the system, a message would be sent to the drivers saying, “Shop open.” After the access was interrupted, another message saying “shop closed” would be sent out.
The indictment has also said that the drivers had to part with a $10 fee paid in cash or through a mobile payment system. This fee could be waived if the driver agreed to recruit other drivers. In early December 2019, shortly after the scheme started, the indictment says that Abayev sent out a voice message to one of the Russian hackers saying that they had made a record number of trips during the day.
The indictment further adds that Abayev and Leyman moved over $100,000 of their criminal proceeds to hackers based in Russia. Abayev also sent a message to drivers participating in the scheme illustrating to them how they could avoid being detained by law enforcement authorities. In the warning message, the hackers provided a list of locations where the drivers should not wait, urging them to be “very very” careful. The message also ended with two emojis that illustrated police officers.
Hackers taking advantage of weakness in the taxi dispatching system
JFK created a taxi dispatching system around 30 years ago. The dispatching system was created to control many yellow cabs at the airports. These cabs usually use the roads around the terminals looking for passengers. The drivers were directed to park their vehicles within a new holding lot that is currently 5.4 acres in size. This lot is situated north of the airport.
The cabs that used this system would be dispatched depending on the order by which they arrived at the terminals where they needed to be. According to the Port Authority, during peak periods, 300 to 400 cabs are dispatched every hour, which is usually in the early morning hours when the demand is low.
The drivers can sometimes wait in the holding lot for between two and three hours before being directed to a terminal where they can pick up a fare. The $10 fee charged by the hackers was a significant deduction on the revenues made by these cabs, given that they charge a flat fare of $52 for a trip to Manhattan.
Abayev and Leyman started looking for ways to exploit this dispatch system in 2019, according to the indictment. After they succeeded, they allowed some taxis to cut the line and be ahead of the drivers that had arrived in the lot much earlier.