Amazon Drivers Say Smartphones-In-Trees Scheme Has Been Thwarted Inc. contract drivers have noticed a sudden change this week in how the company assigns delivery routes, a sign that it has found a way to prevent rogue operators from gaming the system to snatch orders first.

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.

Several drivers in cities around the U.S. 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.

Amazon, which purchased Whole Foods in 2017, declined to say whether it had foiled the operation. But last month the company pledged in an email to drivers that it would investigate the phenomenon. And, according to a person familiar with Amazon’s delivery order system, changing a few lines of code would be all that’s required to short-circuit the plot.

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.

Odd Placement

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.

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