NEW YORK (1010 WINS/WCBS 880) – Two Queens men were sentenced to prison on Tuesday for their role in a scheme to hack the electronic taxi dispatch system at John F. Kennedy International Airport, allegedly with the help of Russian hackers nearly three years ago, with accomplices still at large, prosecutors said.
In October, 2023, Daniel Abayev, 47, and Peter Leyman, 49, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to commit computer intrusion. Abayev was sentenced to four years in prison and Leyman was sentenced to two years in prison.
According to the indictment, Abayev and Leyman, both Queens residents and U.S. citizens along with the help of Aleksandr Derebenetc and Kirill Shipulin, who are Russian nationals living in Russia, set up a scheme to hack the dispatch system at JFK from September 2019 through September 2021.
The regular dispatch system requires taxi drivers to wait in a holding lot at JFK before being assigned to a specific terminal through the system. Normally, drivers wait in the order in which they arrive at the holding lot.
In 2019, the four suspects tried multiple ways to hack into the dispatch system, according to court documents. In one instance, they even allegedly bribed someone to insert a flash drive with malware into computers connected to the system in which they were able to obtain unauthorized access through a Wi-Fi connection, and stealing computer tablets connected to the system.
The hackers also sent various messages to each other discussing their intention for the hack. One message from Abayev to Derebenetc in Russian read, “I know that the Pentagon is being hacked. So, can’t we hack the taxi industry ?,” according to court documents.
Between November 2019 and November 2020, hackers managed to breach the system. They manipulated it to prioritize certain taxis, letting their drivers skip ahead of others waiting in line.
Abayev and Leyman then charged taxi drivers $10 each time they were put in front of the line and a partial profit was sent to Shipulin and Derebenetc.
According to the court documents, Abayev was the leader and recruited Leyman, Shipulin and Derebenetc.
Throughout the scheme, they were able to facilitate up to 1,000 illegally expedited taxi trips per day.
“Daniel Abayev and Peter Leyman, allegedly assisted by Russian hackers, wrought havoc on JFK’s electronic taxi dispatch system, impacting fair order and creating chaos for honest taxi professionals,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said. “Their actions enabled up to 1,000 fraudulent taxi trips daily, underscoring the serious threat cyber hacking poses to critical infrastructure. Through our collaborative efforts with law enforcement partners, their scheme was dismantled, and the defendants have been rightfully sentenced.”
Abayev and Leyman were also sentenced to three years of supervised release and each ordered to pay $161,858 in forfeiture and $3,456,169 in restitution.
Shipulin and Derebenetc remain at large.