Complex Made Simple

Why were Amazon drivers hanging phones in trees?

Earlier this month, Bloomberg broke the story that it had learned that Amazon drivers in Chicago were hanging phones in trees outside Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores in an attempt to game the system.

Amazon hands out some of its orders through an Uber-like app called Amazon Flex By hanging their phones in close proximity to pickup locations, the system would give priority to these complicit drivers The drivers would sync up secondary phones to the devices in the trees, creating an elaborate scheme to nab orders

It’s truly bizarre what people are willing to do to get a leg up on rivals in the currently starved gig economy, thanks to an extended pandemic.

Earlier this month, on September 1st, Bloomberg broke the story that it had learned that Amazon drivers in Chicago were hanging phones in trees outside Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores, later learning that a similar phenomena had emerged in Washington and Las Vegas, outside Whole Foods stores as well. 

The reason, simply, is competition. Amazon hands out some orders through its Uber-like app Amazon Flex, which like the ride-hailing app, gives priority to drivers closer to the pickup location when assigning delivery orders. Drivers place their phones in trees, then sync them to a secondary mobile device. When an order pops up, they’re able to nab the order before most of their other colleagues, even if they are miles away. Additionally, Bloomberg reported that specialized software was being used to monitor the dispatch network in real-time. 

In a pandemic-ravaged world, the gig economy has been significantly hit, with companies like Uber and Careem both seeing sizable decreases in orders. For drivers whose sole livelihood is derived from these apps, many are willing to take extreme measures to find work. 

According to Bloomberg, most Flex routes last from two to four hours and can be scheduled in advance, and pay out driver $18 an hour.

That’s for Amazon. As for Whole Foods, the situation is a bit different. 

“What’s happening at Whole Foods in the Chicago area is different,” Bloomberg said. “Drivers are competing for fast-delivery Instant Offers, which require an immediate response and typically take between 15 and 45 minutes to complete. Instant Offers are dispatched by an automated system that detects which drivers are nearby through their smartphones, according to two people familiar with the technology. When drivers see an Instant Offer, they have only a few minutes to accept the delivery or lose it to someone else.”

The tree-proximity strategy is apparently a concerted effort by a group of complicit drivers, Bloomberg learned from disgruntled drivers who’ve lost out to this dubious practice.  

“The phones in trees seem to serve as master devices that dispatch routes to multiple nearby drivers in on the plot, according to drivers who have observed the process,” the US-based news agency said. “They believe an unidentified person or entity is acting as an intermediary between Amazon and the drivers and charging drivers to secure more routes, which is against Amazon’s policies.”

Apparently, the orchestrators behind the scheme might be doing this to provide work to individuals that are not able to meet the requirements for being drivers, which includes having a valid driving license or being permitted to work in the US, while lining their pockets. The way it works is those in charge of the operation, legitimate drivers themselves, would pick up orders from the master devices in the trees, and then hand out the work to someone else, paying them $10 while keeping the remaining $8. This allows the driver to fulfill more orders in less time, while taking a cut all the same. This is according to an anonymous source Bloomberg spoke with. 

Did you know? Amazon has received FAA approval to begin drone trials in the US

Amazon fights back
While Amazon has remained tight-lipped about the whole affair, refusing to comment, it has now apparently taken action to tweak the system in a way that it can’t be gamed anymore – at least for now. 

According to an update by Bloomberg, contract drivers noticed a sudden change last week in how the company assigns delivery routes:

“Several drivers in cities around the US said they’re now getting more routes even when they’re several miles from Whole Foods locations, an abrupt change from the past several weeks when they said such work was scarce. One driver said the phones once placed in trees near a Chicago-area Whole Foods have disappeared, along with the people who lurked nearby. A driver in Tennessee who lives next to a Whole Foods and received offers every morning said he’s no longer getting them.”

For now, Amazon has closed the book on this caper. However, this isn’t likely to be the last we see of employees in the gig economy trying to game the system. 

In 2017, Uber drivers in the UK were trying to drive up prices by logging off from the app en-masse and at coordinated times, leading the app to bump up prices for riders. That’s because Uber fares increase and decrease based on the number of drivers available. More drivers, cheaper fare. Less drivers, more expensive fare. Basic supply and demand economics, essentially. 

In 2019, a similar phenomenon emerged in the US, this time with drivers from both Uber and Lyft engaging in the same practice. 

“Uber doesn’t pay us enough, what the company is doing is defrauding all these people by taking 35-40 percent,” one driver in Washington told ABC news affiliate WJLA. “They are taking all this money because there’s no system of accountability,” another driver said.  

Uber drivers have been engaging in this practice for a while now, even if the ride-hailing company continues to catch perpetrators when possible. The fact remains that as long as people’s livelihoods are on the line, be it at Uber or Amazon or elsewhere, someone will try to game the system. 

Related: 5 ways Amazon is diversifying its business