Gig drivers for Walmart say they’re forced to compete against bots for deliveries

Sonny Zavata, right, leads a protest by people who make deliveries for Walmart outside a Walmart in Cicero on June 29, 2023. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

By Talia Soglin

Chicago Tribune • Jun 29, 2023 at 2:53 pm

Chicago-area gig workers who make deliveries for Walmart say the company’s delivery app is being targeted by scammers who use bots to hoard orders on the platform, making it difficult for them to make a living.

The drivers are independent contractors who make deliveries for Walmart usingthe company’s delivery platform, called Spark.Drivers who make deliveries out of the company’s Bedford Park, Cicero and Forest Park locations allege scammers have used bots to hoard orders.

Walmart says the use of bots on Spark violates its terms of use and that it investigates reports of bot usage and deactivates drivers who misuse the platform.

Some Spark drivers have been harassed and threatened by the alleged scammers while waiting in the parking lots for orders, advocates and drivers said. Drivers who say they’ve been harmed by the use of bots ralliedThursday morning outside the Cicero Supercenter to call attention to the issue.

Guadalupe Castillo, who has been driving for Spark for about two years, said she has to work much longer hours than she used to and still can’t make as much money — she no longer makes enough to pay her bills, she said.She attributes the drop-off in business to the drivers who are allegedly using bots, which she first started noticing in January.

Castillo, who lives in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, said she used to be able to make about $1,000 a week driving for Spark six days a week, working from the morning to early afternoon.

“Now, I have to work 12 hours every single day, no days off,” Castillo said; sometimes, she can’t make half as much as she used to in a week, she said.

“Now, I don’t spend that much time with my kids,” said Castillo, who has a 16-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. “I always seem tired. I always seem exhausted.”

Some Spark drivers have been threatened, intimidated and harassed by the alleged scammers while working, said Lenny Sanchez, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the Independent Drivers Guild, a workers’ group that organizes with gig workers.

“Many of these workers are undocumented,” Sanchez said. “And they do fear that if they were to go to police and report these incidents that they would face some sort of repercussions and problems themselves.”

Nancy Marcos, another Spark driver, said she used to make between $100 and $150 or so a day driving on the app, but now usually nets between $50 and $80 a day.

“I need to work, I need the money,” said Marcos, 41, who has been driving for Spark for a year. “I just need fairness in the app.”

Marcos, who makes deliveries with her two young children in the car,said she and her fellow drivers are primarily concerned about safety because of threats from the alleged bot-using drivers. She said she had a run-in with a driver she suspected was using bots last week.

“He stopped in front of me and pulled his window down and started screaming all kinds of crazy stuff to me while I was working with my two babies,” Marcos said. Marcos said she couldn’t hear what he was yelling because she kept her windows rolled up.

Eric Guzman, 41, who has been driving for Spark for a year and a half, said he was approached by a bot user in the Cicero Walmart parking lot who asked if he wanted to buy access to the bot. It would have cost $150, he said, with additional payments each week to keep using it.

He said no because he was scared his account would get deactivated.

Guzman, who lives in Cicero, said he used to be able to make about $1,500 a week driving but now makes only about $200.

Castillo said she has been reporting problems accessing orders to Spark support over a period of several months. Castillo provided the Tribune with a series of responses she had received from Walmart driver support since February.

“We apologize and know (it’s) frustrating and unfair for other Driver not using Bots. We are investigating these issues,” read one message from Walmart support in late May.

“The use of bots or apps does violate the terms of service and I can certainly report it. We have heard of this before. Unfortunately, we cannot tell the drivers what apps or websites you can or cannot have on your phones as you are not employees,” a message from early June read.

Castillo and Marcos said they and other workers had raised concerns about the alleged bot users to local store management in Bedford Park and Cicero but had not seen the company take any lasting action.

“The use of bots is an industry-wide issue and something we take seriously. Using bots on the Spark Driver platform is against the terms of use, and we investigate reports of specific driver bot use and deactivate drivers who are misusing the platform in this way,” Walmart said in a statement. “We take a proactive and comprehensive approach to identifying and preventing the use of bots on the platform.”

Walmart said it had been in touch with area stores including Cicero, Bedford Park and Forest Park stores about the bot issue and had investigated specific reports of bot usage.

“We have and will continue to take appropriate action when drivers violate our terms of use, including deactivating certain drivers,” the company said. “We encourage drivers on the Spark Driver platform to report any suspicious activity, including the use of bots.”

The use of bots on gig work platforms has been a known issue within the industry over the last few years, said Marshini Chetty, a computer science professor at the University of Chicago who studies privacy and security.

“It is contract work. There aren’t regular hours, there aren’t benefits,” Chetty said. “People feel pressured to try to get what they need to try to make the money that they need.”

A January report by researchers with the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign noted that new technology has allowed for growth in platform-based work, with much of that work involving driving.

People who make deliveries for Walmart protest outside the store in Cicero on June 29, 2023.
People who make deliveries for Walmart protest outside the store in Cicero on June 29, 2023. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

In a survey of about 500 Chicago-area drivers, researchers found drivers average $30,700 a year in net income from app-based driving after accounting for expenses, with the average driver earning $54,800 in total wage and salary income.

Sanchez said that late last year, drivers who worked for Amazon Flex in the Chicago area reported other independent contractors were using bots to hoard the most lucrative orders on the platform.

After raising the issue with Amazon, Sanchez said, drivers saw their situation improve. Amazon said that earlier this year, it started using CAPTCHAs in the Amazon Flex app to prevent the use of automated services to sign up for deliveries. It has used a photo verification process in the app since 2019.

“We have established safeguards and monitoring to ensure blocks are scheduled by humans and not automated services,” Amazon said. “Additionally, Amazon Flex’s Terms of Service make clear that the use of third-party applications or technology to schedule blocks is prohibited.”

Grubhub, which responded to questions from the Tribune about how it identifies potential fraud related to bots, said it looks for drivers who may be “fraudulently accepting an exorbitant amount of orders during a specific time period.”

Instacart said it used a variety of authentication measures, such as periodically prompting shoppers to take photos of themselves to verify their identities, periodically logging shoppers out of accounts and requiring them to log back inand requiring the completion of RECAPTCHA to log into accounts.

“Our efforts also include removing and banning bad actors from the platform, taking legal action where necessary, and deactivating shoppers found to be misusing the platform,” the company said in a statement. “As a result of these measures, we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in the use of unauthorized third-party apps on the platform.”

V.S. Subrahmanian, a professor of computer science at Northwestern University who studies bots, said companies like Walmart could try to address the issue by identifying users that are consistently able to secure disproportionate numbers of orders, he said. They could also try to identify bots by looking at response time.

“If some person is consistently hitting the sort of analogue of that Jeopardy buzzer faster than everybody else, in a sub-second, or very, very short time intervals, that suggests that there’s something going on here,” Subrahmanian said.

Chetty compared companies’ efforts to curb the use of bots to a game of cat-and-mouse.

“You can take down people who are developing these apps or bots, but there’s always going to be more,” she said.