Duo headed to prison for charging cabbies to skip JFK Airport line with Russian hackers’ aid

A pair of Queens men convicted of conspiring to scam the taxi dispatch system at Kennedy Airport will go to prison for charging drivers to skip the line.

Judge Paul Crotty handed down two terms Monday in Manhattan Federal Court, four months after Daniel Abayev and Peter Leyman admitted they corrupted the electronic dispatch system at JFK for 13 months to enable cab drivers to leapfrog over others in line. He sentenced Abayev, who organized the scheme, to four years in prison and Leyman, who collected payment, to two.

Aided by Russia-based hackers, the former cab drivers carried out the line-skipping scheme starting in November 2019, federal prosecutors say. They charged cabbies $10 to circumvent the first-come, first-serve system in place — in which drivers wait to be dispatched to terminals via an airport holding lot — and waived the fee for those who recruited others.

The former cabbies, both 49, sent at least $100,000 of their earnings to associates in Russia, according to charging papers, who were indicted in the scheme but whose whereabouts are unknown. Abayev and Leyman were arrested in December 2022 and pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit computer intrusion in their October plea agreement with prosecutors, who said they primarily gained access to the airport’s taxi system after bribing someone to hack it with a flash drive containing malware, which gave them access through a Wi-Fi connection.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said the two men “wrought havoc on JFK’s electronic taxi dispatch system, impacting fair order and creating chaos for honest taxi professionals,” manipulating up to 1,000 fraudulent taxi trips daily.

Ahead of Leyman’s sentencing, his attorney, Jacob Kaplan, requested in vain that he serve his sentence at home in an ankle bracelet, citing his health, employees’ jobs, and worries that loans on his taxi medallion and delivery truck will be foreclosed on.

Kaplan said his client’s partner-in-crime played a more prominent role than him and was the one with the Russian contacts. The attorney contended that Abayev also conspired with a Port Authority worker — whose name wasn’t revealed in court papers — and described Leyman as “the least culpable and least knowledgeable member” of the scheme whose only job was to collect the cash. He added that the Forest Hills man made the “terrible decision” to get involved under severe financial distress, owing $120,000 on his medallion and reeling from Uber and Lyft taking his business and pandemic losses.

Kaplan threw shade on the Port Authority’s shoddy dispatch system, saying he wasn’t victim-blaming.

“To a large extent, the Port Authority’s losses and thus the defendants’ sentencing exposure are related to PA’s much-needed upgrades to a computer network that was admittedly not secure or well protected,” Kaplan wrote.

Abayev’s lawyer, Matthew Myers, wrote Crotty saying that his client was “an extremely loving and caring husband and father” who supported vulnerable members of his extended family. He said the government’s description of him as the scheme’s mastermind was exaggerated, noting, “It hardly took any amount of ‘organizing’ to collect $10 from friends who were cab drivers who wanted to cut the line.”

The Port Authority said it lost more than $3.4 million due to the scheme, according to court papers.