Amazon Thwarts Contract Drivers After 'Cell Phone Tree' Exploit Discovered

Amazon.com has suddenly changed the way its contracted drivers for Whole Foods receive delivery jobs from the company, after Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that rogue operators had found a way to game the system by placing smartphones in trees in order to appear closer to pickup locations, according to Bloomberg.

Bloomberg on Tuesday revealed that drivers were putting smartphones in trees outside Whole Foods and Amazon delivery stations in the Chicago area to get a jump on rivals. Drivers in Las Vegas and the Washington, D.C., area also reported spotting mysterious phones outside Whole Foods locations. -Bloomberg

Now, several drivers in cities around the US have reported receiving more routes despite being several miles from Amazon-owned Whole Foods, for example. The drivers say that over the last several weeks, routes have been scarce - however one Chicago-area Whole Foods says that the cell phones have since disappeared from the trees.

A Tennessee driver who lives next to Whole Foods and receives routes every morning says he's no longer receiving them.

Amazon declined to tell Bloomberg what they'd done, but the company pledged in an August email to investigate the situation, according to a person familiar with the company's route assignment platform - who added that changing a few lines of code would be all that's required to foil the scheme.

As Bloomberg reported, the rogue drivers had found a way to game Amazon Flex, an Uber-like app used to win orders and deliver them in their own vehicles. The extreme measures reflect stiffening competition for work in a pandemic-ravaged economy. Flex drivers earn as little as $15 per delivery, plus potentially a tip from the customer.

Someone placed several devices in a tree located close to the station where deliveries originate. Drivers in on the plot synced their own phones with the ones in the tree and waited nearby for an order pickup. The reason for the odd placement, according to experts and people with direct knowledge of Amazon’s operations, was to take advantage of the handsets’ proximity to the station, combined with software that constantly monitors Amazon’s dispatch network, to get a jump on competing drivers. The phenomenon prompted other drivers to complain to Amazon that its delivery dispatch system was being gamed. -Bloomberg

The Whole Foods drivers aren't hourly, rather, they are gig workers who are paid by the job, so gaining an advantage through the smartphone app was a first step towards making more money than their competitors.

One person familiar with the system said that Amazon could solve the problem by creating a dead cellphone zone immediately around whole foods, so that drivers within a few miles of the store are offered routes, while those lingering in the parking lot don't. The obvious flaw, however, is that customers wouldn't take too kindly to dropped calls while shopping - and that giving work to those positioned further away increases delivery times for drivers who are not gaming the system, but legitimately near the location.

In June, the company discouraged 'flex' drivers from hanging out in Whole Foods parking lots to wait for routes.