Russian Pair Charged with JFK Airport Taxi System Hack for Over 2 Years

A cybersecurity incident apparently involving collaboration between Russians and Americans…

Two Russian hackers and two Americans have been accused of a two-year-long hacking scheme involving the taxi dispatch system at JFK Airport, where they earned over $100,000 by assisting taxi drivers in skipping the line.

Two Russian nationals, Aleksandr Derebenetc (aka Sasha Novgorod) and Kirill Shipulin (aka Kirill Russia), have been charged with hacking the taxi dispatch system at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).

Talking about taxis and hacking; in September 2022, Anonymous hacktivists, in cooperation with the IT Army of Ukraine, hacked the app for the ride-hailing service Yandex Taxi in Moscow, Russia, causing a massive traffic jam.

The indictment was unsealed by Damian Williams, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and the Inspector General of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, John Gay.

Two American nationals, Daniel Abayev, 47, and Peter Leyman, 49, both hailing from Queens, NY, have been accused of collaborating with the Russians to move certain taxis to the front of the line in exchange for payment. The scheme started in September 2019 and continued until September 2021. 

According to the indictment, the four individuals used several tactics, including malware, social engineering, and stolen passwords, to access the JFK taxi dispatch system, and conspired to let their desired taxi drivers bypass the long wait times and cut in line.

Abayev and Leyman helped Derebenetc, 30, of Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia, and Shipulin,30, of Moscow, Russia, by recruiting taxi drivers and collecting payments. In addition, they acted as the operation’s frontmen and stayed in touch with the drivers to decide which ones would skip the queue.

Prosecutors allege that the conspirators developed a plan to hack the dispatch systems in 2019 and tried several strategies, such as bribing people to insert a malware-infected flash drive into the computers connected with the taxi system, gaining unauthorized access to the dispatch system through a WiFi connection, and stealing computer tablets that were connected to that system.

Once they infiltrated the dispatch system, the conspirators used messaging apps to communicate with the drivers, give them instructions, and select the drivers who would skip the line and at what time.

When they had access to the system, they would message the drivers “Shop Open,” and when the connection wasn’t successful, they would message them “Shop Closed.” The perpetrators also issued warnings to the drivers to prevent them from going to certain areas around the airport and raising suspicion. 

According to the court filing, the conspirators gained and lost access to the taxi system repeatedly. When they had access, they offered the drivers to move to the front of the dispatch queue for a $10 fee and waived it for those who convinced other drivers to participate in this scheme. 

Many drivers benefitted from this service, noted the US Department of Justice. The gang booked 2,463 queue cuts in a single week during December 2019. Through this scheme, the conspirators enabled at least 1,000 trips daily, and it turned out to be a profitable venture for them as they made over $100,000.

Derbentec and Shipulin are charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, which carry a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. Abayev and Leyman, have pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion and face a maximum sentence of five years.

“As alleged in the indictment, these four defendants conspired to hack into the taxi dispatch system at JFK airport. Cyber hacking can pose grave threats to infrastructure systems that we rely on every day, and our Office is dedicated to pursuing criminal hackers, whether they be in Russia or here in New York.”

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams

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