She Made $10,000 a Month Defrauding Apps like Uber and Instacart. Meet the Queen of the Rideshare Mafia

To understand Priscila Barbosa—the pluck, the ambition, the sheer balls—we should start at the airport. We should start at the precise moment on April 24, 2018, when she concluded, I’m fucked.

Barbosa was just outside customs at New York’s JFK International Airport, 5-foot-1, archetypally pretty even without her favorite Instagram filter. She was flanked by two rolling suitcases stuffed with clothes and Brazilian bikinis and not much else. The acquaintance who had invited her to come from Brazil on a tourist visa, who was going to drive her to Boston? The one who promised to help her get settled, saying that she could make good money like he did, driving for Uber and Lyft?

He’s not answering her texts.

Barbosa was stranded. She cried. She took stock of her belongings: the suitcases, her iPhone, 117 bucks not just in her wallet, but total. She called her mom back in Brazil, but she already knew that her family couldn’t pay for a ticket home. No way was she asking her friends, who had doubted this plan all along; one said she was too old to start over in a new country and, with a whiff of class judgment, insinuated that immigrating was not something their social circle really did.

What now?

Well, Barbosa has a phoenix tattooed on her back. She radiates a game sense of What can I say yes to today? The type of person who, when she and a pal don’t want to splurge on a fancy hotel during a girls trip, swipes right on every guy on Tinder until one joins their bar-crawl and invites them to sleep on his boat. (Says a friend: “Priscila is craaaazy.”) The US government would one day put it more grandly, speaking of Barbosa’s “unique social talents,” calling her “hard-working,” “productive,” and “very organized.”

She knew there was no going back to Brazil but also, deep down, that she didn’t want to, that opportunity was here. “I loved this place”—the US—from nearly the moment she stepped off the plane, she declares. She was 32 years old, college educated, and spoke decent English. She had no choice but to work her way out of this mess.

Barbosa couldn’t have predicted where her striving would end: that she’d become the heavy in a web of fraud. That she’d expose the gig economy’s embarrassing blind spot. That, one day, multibillion-dollar companies like Uber and DoorDash would cry victim. Her victim. Or that she’d fall so far, or that her relationship with Uncle Sam would grow so deeply twisted and codependent.

She did know, that day at JFK Airport, that her doubters back in Brazil would only see one plotline on Instagram: Priscila’s march to victory. Taking a $10 Lyft to a bus station, eyes still puffy from her airport cry, Barbosa aimed her iPhone at the traffic speeding across the Throgs Neck Bridge on a clear spring day. She labeled the video “New York, New York,” and uploaded it onto her Story, ripe with the promise that she was heading somewhere big.

In real life, Barbosa is candid (“I’m a bad liar”). She drops self-deprecating jokes and lets loose big, jagged laughs that sound like a car trying to start. She grew up in Sorocaba, an industrial city of 723,000 people about two hours west of São Paolo. Her dad was an electrician, mom a postal worker. They set their eldest daughter on a path “to be a very educated and polite person”—English lessons and ballet classes. Barbosa loved to mess around on computers. As a teen, she kitted out her home PC with a terabyte of memory and an Nvidia processor so she could play Counter-Strike and World of Warcraft. She also hung out at a local cyber café, where she and a few other gamers formed a tournament team called the BR Girls (“BR” for Brazil). Offscreen, high school was miserable. She was bullied for being a teacher’s pet, for being “chunky,” for being terrible at sports. When a few boys showed romantic interest in her, she turned them down for fear it was a prank.

Barbosa studied IT at a local college, taught computer skills at elementary schools, and digitized records at the city health department. She also became a gym rat (“I’ve had to fight for the perfect body my whole life”) and started cooking healthy recipes. In 2013, she spun this hobby into a part-time hustle, a delivery service for her ready-made meals. When orders exploded, Barbosa ramped up to full-time in 2015, calling her business Fit Express. She hired nine employees and was featured in the local press. She was making enough to travel to Walt Disney World, party at music festivals, and buy and trade bitcoin. She happily imagined opening franchises and gaining a solid footing in the upper-middle class.

But Brazil was in the middle of a recession, and after a few years, her customers started disappearing. Trying to stay afloat, Barbosa cashed out her bitcoin and, when that wasn’t enough, took out high-interest loans (“What a stupid idea, by the way”). She closed Fit Express. Her younger sister had just graduated from college, and her parents had lost their bakery, their retirement gig. Barbosa felt it was up to her to pull everyone out.

She texted that Boston-area acquaintance about her desperation, and he answered: Why didn’t she move to the US and drive for Uber and Lyft? He sent her screenshots of what he was making—$250 a day, better than attorney-level money in Brazil. He said undocumented people could live like normal citizens. She already had a tourist visa. With her family broke and her job search going nowhere, “I couldn’t see any other option,” she says.

A one-way ticket to JFK cost nearly $900. She sold a ring from her grandpa for $1,000. At the airport, her father tried to cut through the family’s gloom, saying, “Rock out, and get a Mustang for Dad!”

A flight across the equator later, and the momentary meltdown at JFK shaken off, Barbosa hurtled north from New York City to Boston on a Peter Pan bus, fervidly scrolling through Facebook groups dedicated to Massachusetts’ large Brazilian community, tapping out DMs and dialing numbers. A Brazilian pizzeria owner told her to come in for a try-out the next day. A Brazilian landlord, who had a tiny room in a flophouse in the western burb of Framingham, said he would take the $400 rent once Barbosa got paid. A shot-in-the-dark call: a Brazilian guy from Boston whom she’d met years before on vacation in Miami. Miraculously, he not only answered but met her at South Station, let her stay the night, and ferried her the next morning to the pizzeria, where she aced the cooking test.

The first night at the flophouse, Barbosa slept on the floor. The second, a Walmart air mattress. She shoved magazines below the door to keep out the rats (“Disgusting!”). Without a car, she walked an hour to the pizza joint, past strip malls and Brazilian bakeries. On the way, she’d stop at Planet Fitness to lift weights and use the shower. (She welcomed the side effect of all the survival schlepping: “The most skinny I ever got!”)

Barbosa was earning about $800 in cash a week at the pizzeria. Aiming to pay down her debts and build her new life quickly, she looked for a second part-time job. One restaurant manager said he needed her to have a Social Security number, and handed her the number of a guy who could make her fake work documents, but Barbosa didn’t dare call. “When you first get here,” she explains, “you think ICE is going to be waiting for you on every single corner.” She tried cleaning houses but lasted exactly two days, loathing every second. Then the pizzeria got slow for the summer and laid her off. Scrolling Facebook in bed one morning, she saw a post in a Brazilian group asking: Do you want to work for Uber/ Lyft and be your own boss?

Barbosa quite enjoyed being her own boss. Working for other people since arriving in the States had felt like a necessary but major downgrade. She also finally had a car, having financed a used Jeep Liberty after a couple months of work. When she called the listed number in the ad, the guy who answered told her that, for $250 a week, she could rent an Uber driver account. It would have Barbosa’s photo, her car, and her bank account, but would use another name. Barbosa didn’t ask any questions. She says she didn’t know exactly how she was skipping right over the app’s onboarding requirements: a US driver’s license, a year of driving experience in the US, a Social Security number, and a background check. She did know that she cleared $2,000 in her first week, enough to stop worrying about another job.

Illustration of Priscila Barbosa holding a cocktail in a night club
Illustration: Michelle Mildenberg

Not long after she started, Uber deactivated Barbosa’s account out of the blue. So she switched to renting one on Lyft from the same guy. Now she drove as “Shakira.” When the Lyft app prompted Barbosa to confirm her identity by scanning her license, she texted the guy she was renting from: What now? He sent back a photo of Shakira’s ID. Oh. She was real. He paid Shakira a fee each week.

Driving without a license, under the table on a tourist visa, loaded Barbosa with stress. One night, Barbosa picked up a passenger at 2 am and he tried to kiss her. She had to fight him off and left him one star on the app; she didn’t want to risk calling the cops. Another time, she was pulled over for having her lights off. Barbosa froze as the officer strode up to her window, worried she might get her car towed and end up in jail, or even—who knows?—deported. She showed the cop her Brazilian driver’s license, and said she’d left her American one at home. He let her go.

In WhatsApp groups, and while waiting for riders at Logan Airport, Barbosa chatted up other Brazilian drivers also renting accounts. They traded tips about driving without papers, the nuances of the fuzzy don’t-ask-don’t-tell status quo in a country that hasn’t passed comprehensive immigration reforms in more than three decades. Far from an ICE officer on every corner, she heard, if you kept your head down, didn’t drink and drive or pick fights, you could manage.

In October, Barbosa posted a humblebrag on Instagram to mark six months in the US: “Thankful every day that I had such courage and audacity.” She had reasons to be proud: From being stranded with $117 at JFK, she’d moved into a better apartment and had already sent enough money back to Brazil to pay her parents’ bills and nearly clear her own debts. She was buying clothes at TJ Maxx, perfume at Macy’s, restarting her regimen of technicolor manicures and wrinkle-busting Botox (“a priority”). In another Instagram photo, she was holding her cocktail aloft and dancing with a giant furry bear at a club, kissing toward the camera. The post quoted the iconic Apple ad: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels …”

The six-month anniversary also meant Barbosa was officially overstaying her tourist visa. The grind continued. She was clocking 14-hour days on Uber. She was also still paying a middleman just to use an account. Then, that fall, Barbosa stumbled on a way out.

One of her customers left their wallet in her car. She followed the woman’s convoluted instructions to return it, driving to two far-flung locations over two hours. Miffed, at one point Barbosa opened the wallet. She looked at the woman’s license, blonde with blue eyes. Barbosa snapped a picture. She thought the woman might tip her or at least say “thank you” for having wasted two hours, unpaid, to do her a favor. Instead, the woman was rude and short, giving Barbosa the push she’d been looking for. “I said, yeah, now I’m going to use this.”

Over the next few weeks, she would click through the driver onboarding process on both Uber and Lyft, reading over the steps to create her own account, mulling the risk. Finally, lying in bed on Christmas night, the first one she’d spent without her family, it was time: She opened her phone and scrolled to the blonde woman’s license. Barbosa uploaded the license to the Uber app. She used the woman’s name but her own insurance and registration. She entered her own iCloud email and phone number and set her own picture—brown hair, brown eyes—on the driver profile. She made up a Social Security number, submitted the application, and went to sleep.

The next day, Uber approved the account. Like that, Barbosa was in business for herself.

“I looove to party,” Barbosa once wrote me during the year and a half that we talked and emailed. For her, going out is less a dalliance than a birthright, Barbosa’s wildly extroverted brand of self-care. “I’m a human being, too,” she says, “I deserve to have fun.”

On Fridays, as other drivers shared their earnings in the WhatsApp group, she’d post a pic of her fresh pineapple vodka cocktail and invite them to join her at happy hour. Barbosa headed to bars and clubs several nights a week—the Grand, Scorpion Bar, the Harp, Ned Devine’s, Royale—and threw parties at her apartment. She thrived on meeting other Brazilians (“I hate to be alone”), plugging their numbers into her phone, asking what they did for work.

A few incident-free weeks after Barbosa started driving with the Uber account she’d made, a new business opportunity arose. An acquaintance asked Barbosa to find a renter for his Uber and Lyft accounts, which he wasn’t using. (Some undocumented drivers traveled to states like Maryland and California, which would issue licenses to residents regardless of immigration status. Barbosa would soon get her own license, using a friend’s address in California.) She scouted a candidate, and the acquaintance gave her a cut of the rent, $50 a week. She soon did the same for a few other people she knew who also wanted to rent out their accounts—a popular side hustle among expats, she quickly realized. Voilà, $300 in passive income a week.

One day, while chatting over barbecue and Mike’s Hard Lemonade at one of her house parties, a friend mentioned that for whatever reason, the onboarding process for ride-sharing accounts seemingly couldn’t verify Social Security numbers issued after June 2011, when the Social Security Administration changed the way it assigned the numbers.

After the party, Barbosa couldn’t resist; she plugged a few random sequences into ssn-verify.com, a website that shows when a number was issued. She tried one that started 776-94. Bingo. Maybe assigned after 2011. She entered the combination while making a new driver account. When Checkr, a company that does background checks for Uber, emailed asking for her to verify the number, Barbosa says she simply plugged it in again. Then Checkr sent whatever information it gathered to Uber, and Uber approved the account. (A source close to Checkr insists that the company could, in fact, do background checks using numbers assigned after 2011, and Social Security numbers are just one data point they use to find information. All Barbosa knows is, in that era, her trick worked.)

Barbosa also met people with pictures of real licenses to sell, and she spotted another opportunity: By buying a license and adding in her simple Social Security trick, Barbosa could create new driver accounts on Uber and Lyft en masse. She set rent at the price she’d previously paid, $250 a week. Business took off. Word got around; more people pinged her WhatsApp, wanting their own profiles. By late summer, with some eight renters bringing her $2,000 a week, Barbosa stopped driving. Now she spent her days at her dining table on her laptop, concocting accounts.

Priscilla Barbosa sitting on a stool

“It never, never crossed my mind that I was, like, being a criminal,” Barbosa says.

Photograph: Tony Luong

Barbosa figured she had gotten lucky on her own slapdash Uber account that she’d hatched on Christmas. Now, when she found a client, she registered a burner phone number on TextNow and an encrypted email with Proton Mail. Uber seemed to have gotten more discerning, so if her customer looked nothing like the person on the driver’s license, she photoshopped the customer’s face in place of the original. That way, when the app prompted them to take a selfie as a security spot check, they would pass. She also photoshopped the name from the license onto the customer’s insurance documents. Ever organized, Barbosa kept an Excel spreadsheet with each account’s details. In her Apple Notes, she checked off clients once they Venmoed or Zelled her the weekly rent.

“It never, never crossed my mind that I was, like, being a criminal,” Barbosa says. Sure, she would learn that her suppliers were getting the driver’s license photos on the dodgy down-low. One guy was sneaking pictures of customer’s IDs from his job at a car dealership. Other pictures were bought off the dark web. Some people in the underground driver’s license economy in Maryland or California would snap a photo of the licenses before mailing them to their out-of-state immigrant clients, and then rent or sell those photos to people like Barbosa. Somehow (“my naive concept,” she says), uploading doctored documents onto an online platform seemed a lesser transgression than buying fake work documents IRL.

Barbosa rationalized that she wasn’t stealing money, and she had certain standards. She didn’t buy licenses off a guy who reportedly dinged his car into people’s bumpers and photographed the victim’s ID in the post-crash exchange. To Barbosa, that seemed truly beyond the pale.

Mostly, she felt like an entrepreneur, supplying the demand. Undocumented immigrants wanted to drive in the gig economy, and with the system that existed, they legally could not. People like Barbosa—with no family in the States to sponsor them for green cards and their undocumented status precluding them from applying for many other types of visas—were short on options. “If the US gave more opportunities for immigrants to be able to work legally and honestly here,” she says, “nobody would look for something like this.”

It wasn’t just about business, though. Barbosa readily admits she enjoyed not just the challenge but the ego boost of beating powerful Silicon Valley companies on their own platforms. “I feel pride in breaking their stupid systems,” she wrote me. “These companies are all about money. They don’t care for the drivers (we are just numbers for them).” So she held open yawning security loopholes and waved undocumented drivers in. “I never had evil intentions,” she explains. “I always thought I was helping my people.”

Of course, Barbosa was poking the rideshare industry’s weak spot: The companies sometimes had no idea who was driving. Uber and Lyft, vying for supremacy and scale, competed to add drivers as fast as possible. Onboarding was optimized for ease and speed, done remotely, via the app. Both companies outsourced criminal background checks, but they didn’t catch everything. (That led to a torrent of lawsuits, regulator spats, and bad press about Uber– and Lyft–approved drivers who’d committed robbery, sex offenses, and assault.) A year before Barbosa arrived in Massachusetts, the state had tried to wrangle the chaos with its own background check for drivers, the toughest oversight in the country at the time. An audit later found that program severely lacking, too.

Background checks, of course, are useless if the person being vetted is not actually the driver. As Barbosa was finding, in that era, verifying the driver’s identity was a Swiss cheese of flaws to exploit. In 2019, London regulators reported 43 unauthorized drivers who had simply uploaded their photo to another Uber worker’s account to give some 14,000 rides. Officers at San Francisco International Airport were ticketing Lyft and Uber drivers after discovering people who didn’t match their app profiles. Industry observers called the issue of drivers sharing or renting accounts an open secret. (The companies claim to have ramped up security since, but the American Immigration Council says that, in its analysis of 2022 census data, undocumented workers are very much still a part of this sector.)

Barbosa tried to do her own vetting of drivers, for safety and business. She texted the potential customers: Did they have a driver’s license in Brazil? Did they have a car? How often do they plan to work? Dilettantes, she learned, tended to stop paying rent, wasting an account.

She started to become well known in Boston’s Brazilian community (“famous,” she calls it) as, paradoxically, an honest broker. All over social media were warnings about scammers preying on undocumented drivers, taking advantage of the fact they wouldn’t go to police or the courts. Some vendors charged exorbitant rent or would take money upfront and never give someone an account. Others siphoned the drivers’ earnings to their own wallets.

The good faith Barbosa showed to her customers paid off. Soon she was raking in about $10,000 a month and was pairing up with business partners to help make and manage some accounts. In the summer of 2019, she bought a used black Mustang. (She posted on Instagram, “Dad, this is for you.”) She shared her #route66roadtrip, the Grand Canyon, a crowded Vegas pool party. From Epcot, she and a friend posted cocktail toasts from a whirlwind of Disneyfied countries. She posed in front of a Beverly Hills sign and on Rodeo Drive. Her followers were paying attention. On a picture of Barbosa wearing a faux fur coat in New York City, one person commented, “She’s Hollywood now!” In phone calls, her mom asked, “What do you do for work, Priscila?” She answered vaguely, “Making accounts.”

Then, the fall brought a nearly existential blow: Uber asked drivers on profiles with fake Social Security numbers—about 35 of Barbosa’s clients at that point, she estimates—to present their documents in person. (“We’re committed to constantly improving our detection capabilities to protect against fraudsters’ ever-evolving schemes,” said Heather Childs, chief trust and security officer at Uber.) Barbosa and her drivers had no choice but to walk away: a loss, she says, of around $30,000 a month in rent. Until this point, she recalls, account deactivation had been rare.

Now Barbosa knew that if she wanted to keep making lucrative Uber accounts, she’d need real Social Security numbers. She searched the dark web for the numbers belonging to the people on the licenses she bought, but struck out. So Barbosa started purchasing stolen numbers from a contact, $100 a pop. She nervously created a few new accounts with the real numbers, but didn’t feel comfortable repeating that at scale; it felt, she says, like she’d “crossed the line.”

Barbosa was wondering whether she’d need to leave her Uber business altogether, when one of her customers gave her an idea. Alessandro Da Fonseca was an amiable guy in his twenties who’d recently emigrated from a shantytown district of Rio de Janeiro. He rented one of Barbosa’s cars for a pizza delivery job and a Lyft gig, where he could get along with just a few words of English and an animated “Yeah!” as customers chatted him up. He’d also started driving for DoorDash. (“I prefer food, because food doesn’t talk,” he told me.) DoorDash incentivized drivers to invite new workers to the app by dangling a referral bonus, which would be paid out after the first-time driver made a set number of deliveries. The setup was ripe for exploitation.

At the time, DoorDash required a driver’s license number but no picture of the actual card. Barbosa tried making an account, reusing a number from a license she had on hand. Success. Fonseca started driving—as her “new” referral—on this account. She offered him a 50-50 split of the bonus. Barbosa and Fonseca got into a routine: She created new accounts to refer, and he typically cleared enough deliveries to earn the bonus on two accounts he worked under simultaneously (also against the rules) every two weeks.

While waiting for orders at McDonalds, Chipotle, or Burger King, Fonseca would chat up other Brazilian delivery workers. Some were getting kicked only 20 percent of the referral bonus from their account maker. Fonseca pitched his contact and her 50-50 split.

Thanks to her previous business, Barbosa was sitting on a stack of IDs, and her old Uber customers who’d lost their accounts now wanted in. She could push out a DoorDash account in five minutes. Pretty soon, she says, she had 10 customers. Fonseca found Barbosa to be a showboat on Instagram, sure, but also unfailingly polite and generous. She invited him to her house parties and dispensed recommendations on anything from a good car dealer to a Japanese restaurant. In business, she was demanding, prodding him when his referrals were dallying in reaching the bonus. Sometimes she’d give Fonseca a laggard’s login, and he would ask the driver whether he could finish the jobs himself. (A spokesperson for DoorDash said, “We’ve made huge strides on tackling fraud, and the fact is, what we did five years ago is not what we do today.”)

Barbosa started making Instacart accounts, too, and soon she was again minting money, to the tune of some $12,000 a month. The week before Christmas 2019, Barbosa posted on Instagram a picture of her in New York City, grabbing the charging Wall Street bull by its enormous bronze balls.

Illustration of Priscila Barbosa grabbing the Wall Street Bull's balls
Illustration: Michelle Mildenberg; Getty Images

Distracted by her burgeoning delivery app business, Barbosa mostly stopped thinking about Uber and Social Security numbers. Then Covid struck and cratered ride-sharing overnight.

A mother lode of food delivery surged in its place. DoorDash and Instacart cranked up their referral bonuses to lure more drivers to the road. At one point, she recalls, it was $2,000 on DoorDash, $2,500 on Instacart. Immigrants ineligible for unemployment or Covid relief texted Barbosa with a new level of desperation. They needed to make rent, to feed their kids. Now she was hearing from Brazilians all over the United States. Spanish-speaking immigrants too. Even some US citizens who couldn’t drive because of DUIs or reckless driving tickets.

Barbosa went into overdrive, churning out accounts “as fast as I could.” For friends, or people whose situations sounded especially grim, she’d sometimes make them for free.

On Instacart, she’d scan the front of her own California license, so she could then take a selfie to pass the platform’s face-recognition test. She says she did this on hundreds of accounts. For the license’s backside, she photoshopped on a barcode that she generated with software, using the identity information from her existing stockpile of drivers’ IDs. When she needed more licenses, she bought fresh ones off Instacart workers who were using a new harvesting technique: While scanning the back of a customer’s ID into the app during alcohol deliveries, the worker would sneak a photo of the front.

On DoorDash, a few zealous drivers were nabbing the referral bonus in a single day and coming back the next day for another account. Sometimes, Barbosa had up to 20 new accounts on various platforms going through background checks; at her Covid apex, she says, she raked in about $15,000 in one week.

Barbosa—always a “materialist,” she concedes—catapulted to a new realm of buying power. She flaunted her acquisitions on Instagram: a Sea-Doo ($7,000, used), Louboutin heels, Gucci sunglasses, a Louis Vuitton purse. She upgraded her cross necklace to a 24k gold one with 18 inset diamonds (not religious, just superstitious), and her bed to a California king. With most clubs shuttered, Barbosa outfitted her latest rental upgrade, a three-story townhome in Saugus, with a karaoke machine and a keg tap, plus a hot tub and a firepit in the backyard. She adopted a Yorkie named Bailey, for whom she bought so many toys that house visitors asked whether she had kids (no, and no thanks). She posted an Instagram Story that someone had filmed of her standing out of the sunroof of her gleaming white Porsche Macan, hair whipping. (For extra money, she rented out the Porsche and her Mustang on Turo.) She dropped $13,000 to rent an event hall in the Boston burbs for her 35th birthday bash, with a band and 50 guests. The next day, she was awed but not stressed by an additional $12,000 charge on her credit card for the open bar. She bought a plot of land outside of Fort Myers, Florida, that she saw advertised on Facebook for $5,000. (“I’m like, that’s so cheap!”) She planned to someday build a house there and move in with her boyfriend, a Brazilian house painter whom she hoped to marry.

Barbosa also had enough money to solve what she thought was her biggest problem: She couldn’t go home to see her family, because she needed a green card to leave and reenter the US. So a couple of months into Covid, she flew to LA and flipped through a binder full of pictures of potential husbands in an office on Wilshire Boulevard. A sham marriage would cost some $28,000—$18,000 to the agency and $10,000 to the husband, paid out in $350 monthly chunks to keep him cooperative throughout the process. She felt zero guilt: At least she wasn’t feigning romance with a citizen. Cleaner for it to be a business transaction.

Barbosa bought a white sundress at a boutique and a crown of white flowers and drove to a park, where a Covid-masked officiant married her and a man named Mario by a flowering jacaranda tree. An agency staffer snapped pics for evidence, and Mario’s real girlfriend looked on. Barbosa’s family, who knew the drill, FaceTimed in on her phone. Her Instagram post from the day doesn’t mention what was really happening; it shows her alone in her sundress on the beach. Caption: “The sky is the limit!”

Throughout the pandemic, Barbosa was a digital nomad tending her accounts mill. From a water park, she’d call DoorDash customer service to clear up a flubbed delivery from one of her workers who didn’t speak English. Poolside in Vegas, she’d log in to a client’s Instacart to snap a selfie for a face recognition spot-check. (Some customers kept a printout of Barbosa’s photo on hand for the checks. Instacart says those tricks would not work today.) When Instacart deactivated some 85 percent of her accounts—a particularly dire crisis—she ignored her boyfriend’s protests and hunkered down in a Florida hotel room for days to remake each one.

Over time, Barbosa invited a small group of compatriots in the business into a WhatsApp group that she cheekily named Mafia. (An unfortunate choice, in hindsight: “I should have put ‘People From Church.’”) The Mafia shared tips and problems and agreed on account prices, with plenty of banter to enliven the drudgery of the digital assembly line.

By the fall of 2020, drivers were asking for Uber Eats accounts. If Barbosa wanted their business, she would again have to face the Social Security number dilemma. She mulled it over. It had been months since she’d queasily made her first accounts using the real numbers, which she’d bought off a contact. Nothing bad had happened. She’d since found the right dark-web site to purchase them directly. Why ease off now? “I was already so involved in this,” she wrote me.

So Barbosa decided to wade back into the Uber biz. She bought a batch of Social Security numbers off the dark web with bitcoin.

By then, Uber seemed to be wising up. Accounts would be deactivated after a week, a month at most. Then Barbosa would noodle a workaround, and the cat-and-mouse game would continue. But in late 2020, after a wallop of new deactivations, the Mafia seemed to finally hit a wall. For days, then weeks, they tried to figure out a new method that would get an account approved. No luck. Barbosa recalls someone texting, chagrined, “The Titanic is sinking.”

Then, one Mafia member mentioned that Uber kept metadata on the accounts. Barbosa noticed that all of her axed accounts had, in fact, been created on her phone—iPhone de Priscila Barbosa. What if she made her computer look like a different device each time? She restarted her laptop, accessed the web through a VPN, changed her computer’s address, and set up a virtual machine, inside which she accessed another VPN. She opened a web browser to create an Uber account with a real Social Security number bought from the dark web. It worked. Barbosa delivered a few orders herself. The account held.

She texted the Mafia, “Guys, this is working.”

They exploded in texts of relief and joy: “If Priscila can’t figure it out, no one can!” Barbosa felt a pride she had only known back in Brazil when her meal business was booming. She felt smart, and needed: She’d kept scores of immigrants working during the pandemic; she’d helped get people food as a deadly virus menaced. If she blurred the details, she could feel good about all of it.

The glow was short-lived. As the year wound down, a vague rumor hit one of her WhatsApp groups: Police might be investigating the fake accounts biz. Already uneasy about buying Social Security numbers, Barbosa says she didn’t want to be caught flat-footed if the rumor turned out to be true. She hustled around her apartment, grabbing Instacart, DoorDash, and Grubhub bags, logo stickers, and app-issued debit cards. Outside, she placed several phones under her Porsche’s wheels and drove over them. She threw all the evidence into garbage bags and, that night, chucked them into several dumpsters in various parking lots.

She’d long taken comfort that WhatsApp and Proton Mail, the email service she’d used for the apps, were encrypted. She used an alias, Carol, on her work phone so clients couldn’t easily snitch on her. Now the physical evidence was gone too. (“Sweet illusion,” she wrote me.) For a couple of weeks after the purge, Barbosa forced herself to stop making accounts.

She spent New Year’s in Miami Beach, where she posted a photo of herself wearing Gucci sunglasses and holding a frozen mai tai the size of her head. She shared the pic with the Mafia.

Someone quipped back, “Find me, FBI.”

As 2020 turned to 2021 and Barbosa continued making accounts, a low hum of dread invaded her idle moments. She started to ponder an exit.

She confided to a Mafia pal that she was scared of losing everything. News in February didn’t help: A 30-year-old Brazilian named Douglas Goncalves had been arrested for working under a stolen identity on Instacart. It was the first time Barbosa had heard of criminal consequences for a fake profile, and she recognized the suspect’s name: Goncalves, she says, had texted her a couple of weeks earlier about getting an account. His long-winded answers to her usual vetting questions annoyed her, and she ghosted him, she recalls. But the texts might still be sitting on his phone.

Fonseca, Barbosa’s DoorDash partner, also started to worry. Too many people were hawking accounts, licenses, and Social Security numbers in his WhatsApp groups. “Everybody knew this bomb would explode someday,” he said. “People are stupid and don’t take care.”

Barbosa thought about going legit, getting back into the food business, opening a Brazilian steakhouse. She figured startup costs at about $50,000; she had that amount many times over. She googled around to see what kind of permits she’d need.

Still, her frauds kept compounding. Uber was now rejecting the doctored ID photos; she bought a printer to create physical fake licenses. She had more than 50 customer accounts active on various platforms, and new people kept texting her, often with a woeful tale. To calm her fraying nerves, she told herself that with so many people in the accounts trade, some doing more audacious things than she was, why would she get in trouble? One Mafia member, she says, was running a team that spoofed DoorDash deliveries for food that, in reality, was never picked up or delivered.

“I had so many chances to stop, but I didn’t,” she wrote me. “It looked like an addiction you know.”

In April 2021, while Barbosa was cooking dinner, a text pinged her phone. Her green card had been approved. Barbosa screamed; she called her parents in tears. Then she threw together a party for the next night to celebrate. When Fonseca arrived, he squeezed through the loud, packed house and grabbed some Brazilian barbecue. Outside on the back porch, he found Barbosa, in cut-off shorts and a halter top, swigging overflowing champagne from the bottle.

If you ask Barbosa when she was happiest, she’ll say it was that moment: “Everything was perfect.” She had a green card. She had the house and the (real) boyfriend and the Porsche that she wanted. She booked a round-trip ticket—first class—to visit her family in Brazil for two weeks in late May. She bought Versace sneakers, because why not. She was going to open her steakhouse, marry her boyfriend, and, down the line, move into the house she’d build in Florida. Just three years after landing at JFK, she had risen to the top of a shadow Silicon Valley gig economy. She’d hacked her way to the American Dream.

On May 6, 2021, a new Instagram Story. Among the vacation bacchanalia and designer haul videos, this one stood out. Barbosa filmed ahead, over handlebars as she pedaled a bike through her sunny townhouse complex. No humblebrag, or even brag-brag. Carefree.

The next morning, she woke up at dawn to her Yorkie barking. A banging on the front door. A booming voice, ordering her to come downstairs.

Find me, FBI. They did.

Illustration of Priscila Barbosa's apartment complex over her bike handlebars
Illustration: Michelle Mildenberg; Getty Images

Later that day, crying in the back seat of an unmarked car en route to a Rhode Island prison, Barbosa recalls an FBI agent trying to calm her down. He complimented her apartment, which she admits, even given the circumstances, pleased her just a little.

As it turns out, in late 2019, right about the time Barbosa was grabbing the Wall Street bull by the balls, Uber did know something was off. The company detected a ring of people bypassing its background checks in Massachusetts and California, and tipped off the FBI in Boston. Investigators served a warrant to Apple; they wanted to see the iCloud account of a Brazilian guy named Wemerson Dutra Aguiar who, after getting hurt at his job in construction, started driving for apps and later dealing fake accounts. Barbosa didn’t know Aguiar, but a Mafia member had once asked her to email him a Connecticut driver’s license template. She did. By February 2021, law enforcement had circled in on her, and served Apple a search warrant for her iCloud too. In early April, the FBI had tracked Barbosa’s location via her T-Mobile cell number. Investigators staked out her apartment and watched her come and go.

All this time, Barbosa had worried that getting caught could mean the government would seize her money and property—to her, disaster enough. She was shocked that the FBI raided her house, “like arresting a murderer.” All this for me? Then she was locked in a prison cell and charged, along with 18 other Brazilian nationals, with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, for making and renting fake accounts over the prior two-plus years.

Barbosa was accused of being a heavy in the case: The government said she pushed out some 2,000 accounts, using hundreds of driver’s licenses, and profited more than $780,000. Barbosa says about half of that was her actual take. The rest she either split with her business partners or sent along to the immigrants who didn’t have their own bank accounts and used hers. (The government conceded in court filings that Barbosa did let other people use her bank account.)

For the next two weeks, Barbosa says, she sat alone in her jail cell for 23 hours a day—for a mandated Covid-era quarantine—suffering from panic attacks and spiraling self-loathing. “I was feeling that my life was over,” she wrote me. “I fucked up everything.” Her attorney mailed her a flash drive of the government’s evidence: her bank statements, the contents of her iCloud account, her Excel spreadsheet, some Mafia WhatsApp chats. Barbosa cringed upon reading “Find me, FBI.” (“I bet the FBI agent’s face, when they read that, they said hahaha, like, stupid woman!”)

While Barbosa was in jail, her sister traveled to Boston and packed four suitcases full of Versace and Louboutin shoes and LV purses, then took them back to Brazil. Barbosa had a contact transfer $30,000 back to Brazil before it could be seized. (The feds did later grab approximately $55,000 in bitcoin.) On a video call, her sister showed her stories in the Brazilian press. “My name was in everyone’s mouth in my city,” she says. The former teacher’s pet from Sorocaba who taught computers to kids, now an alleged felon with some Mafia texting group in the US. Her mom was devastated. For months and months, the legal process dragged on.

So, question: Did you think Priscila Barbosa, queen of accounts, was going to sit idle in jail? At the Gloria McDonald Women’s Facility in Rhode Island, she morphed into Barbosa, Star Inmate. She cooked for more than 100 prisoners in the cafeteria and shared Brazilian recipes with fellow kitchen staff. That earned her $3 a day. (“Ridiculous,” she says, but she enjoyed the work.) She joined inmates in planting an organic vegetable garden in the yard. She aced law clerk and English composition classes. She picked up crochet, writing down pages of instructions that her sister had emailed: a headband, glittery unicorn slippers, a Christmas tree, stockings, and snowmen to deck out the unit for the holidays. She conquered a 2,000-piece puzzle of jellyfish and whales, then a 5,000-piece world map. She did daily squats and jumping jacks. She watched Orange Is the New Black and declared it somewhat accurate. She watched a TV commercial for WhatsApp’s “private” texting and declared it a lie. When she entered a room, she says that some inmates, resentful, would snipe, “Here comes the princess.” Upon hearing about her crime, one woman called her “Brazilian Robin Hood.”

The name was snappy, but an awkward fit. Barbosa hadn’t stolen money from the rich as much as identities from ordinary people. Now sitting in jail, she says, she finally thought about them. “This is going to sound awful,” she warns, but here goes: “I feel bad that I caused some emotional distress to people. But at the same time, I did it in peace, because I never took money from any of those people. It wasn’t victimless, because I used people’s identity. But nobody really got damaged.”

None of the three identity-theft victims who spoke to me—a Harvard professor and two tech workers—knew how or when their identity had been stolen. None had experienced financial harm. They felt unnerved because their information was exposed, but they were also curious about, and even showed a degree of empathy for, the thieves. One victim mused to me, “It’s kind of a sad crime in a way, isn’t it? Obviously, it’s a crime and they shouldn’t have done it, but sad that people have to do stuff like this to get by.”

In prison, the crime was regarded as rather pathetic. Alessandro Da Fonseca, Barbosa’s DoorDash ally (arrested on the same day), was waiting out the legal process with many other defendants in a Rhode Island detention center, and found that more serious fraudsters were baffled. With all the personal information the ring had access to—enough to open bank accounts, credit cards—their only con was to … create Uber profiles? Fonseca shrugged it off. “We are not criminals, with a criminal mind,” he told me in a jail call. “We just want to work.”

Uber disagreed. During the legal wranglings, the company accused the ring of stealing money and tallied its losses: some $250,000 spent investigating the ring, around $93,000 to onboard the fraudulent drivers, plus safety risks and damage to its reputation. Defense attorneys shot back that no one lost money at all: The jobs were done. The food was delivered. People got their rides. The gig companies, in fact, profited off the undocumented drivers, taking their typical hefty cut—money that, once the fraud was discovered, there was no evidence they’d refunded to customers.

In February 2022, Barbosa sat in her Rhode Island prison cell, reading two packets of papers: one agreement to plead guilty to felony identity theft and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, another to cooperate with the US government. She had already done the latter in two hours-long interviews, in hopes of a lighter recommended sentence. She signed both agreements with a star in the P of Priscila (a sort of watermark, she says, in case the government tried to use her signature elsewhere).

A year later, in June 2023, Barbosa walked into her sentencing inside the red-brick federal courthouse along Boston’s waterfront. It felt nice to be back in civilian clothes—a white flouncy blouse and black pants—but she was still afraid. The government was recommending three years for her, given her cooperation. Other defendants, whose alleged profits were lower, had been sentenced to that or more.

In court, assistant US attorney David Holcomb told the judge that Barbosa was the “most prolific creator” of the accounts, a “central figure” in the network, “highly effective” at this kind of fraud, with “unique social talents” bringing together ex-boyfriends, social contacts, and competitors. Barbosa’s attorney argued that her intentions were mostly good. “She is a very intelligent woman,” he said, who “put her intelligence to use in an extraordinary way,” helping immigrants work. (Barbosa enjoyed that part.) The judge wasn’t convinced. Her intelligence was all aimed at defrauding people, he said, and he had to set an example: “I hope those chat rooms are now filled with chats about ‘Did you hear about what happened to Priscila Barbosa?’” Her use of technology—the dark web, bitcoin, Photoshop—constituted “sophisticated means,” a sentencing enhancement, he added.

When Barbosa spoke, she cried. She said she was ashamed. She apologized “from the bottom of my heart” to the people whose identities she used. Then the judge read out her sentence: three years, just what the assistant US attorney recommended. Barbosa exhaled. With the two years she’d already served in prison, and with time shaved off for good behavior, she’d be released within a few months. For that last stretch, she was shipped off to Aliceville federal prison in Alabama.

Then, late in the hot summer, she got a visit from federal immigration officers. After she finished her sentence, they told her, she’d be taken to deportation proceedings. (“It looks like this nightmare never ends,” she wrote me.) As the months ticked by, Barbosa’s hopes of being able to stay in the US had grown. Now, crestfallen, she slipped into depression. She also decided that she would not fight it. She’d pay for her own ticket to Brazil so she’d be free as soon as possible. With the weeks dwindling, she typed me a very un-Barbosa message:

“Too bad they got me too, it is what it is.”

That, you might have guessed, was never how the story of Priscila Inc. was going to end.

Remember Barbosa’s sham marriage in LA? The government found out about it too, while raiding her apartment. Along with her laptops and phones and driver’s license printer, investigators took an album of wedding photos and a receipt for the $28,000 “Package Plan.” They asked her about it during those interviews while she was in jail.

In October, as Barbosa’s deportation drew nearer, she heard from her attorney. Thanks in part to the intel from the apartment raid and her interviews, the government had busted the 11-person ring. Now she was being subpoenaed to testify at one person’s trial.

Barbosa didn’t want to take the stand, but given her cooperation agreement, she had little choice. So on November 15, 2023, the day before she had been scheduled to be taken into ICE custody, Barbosa was on a commercial plane, flying back to Boston with two US Marshals, hiding her handcuffs from other passengers inside her hoodie’s kangaroo pocket. At the federal courthouse, she was (technically) rearrested, this time as a material witness. A magistrate judge released her with an ankle monitor to await the trial.

To understand Priscila Barbosa—the pluck, the sheer balls—consider that as other fraudsters were counting the days until their deportations or still living on the lam, she was walking out of a Boston courthouse’s front door.

Barbosa was 37 years old. Fluent in English. Still wearing her gray Alabama prison sweatsuit. A bulky GPS cinched on her ankle. She breathed in the autumn air, along with a surreal feeling of once again being in charge of her own day. “I don’t have even a toothbrush!” she told me over the phone the next day, giddy. “It is incredible to feel free again.”

Two weeks later, she’d stride into the trial and recount the meeting at the marriage agency’s office on Wilshire, the binder of potential spouses, the wedding by the jacaranda tree. The defendant’s attorney, while cross-examining Barbosa, would rub in just how much she was benefiting from testifying: that she’d helped herself by telling the government about others (“I was just being truthful,” she retorted), that her prison sentence had been shorter (“Who wants to be in jail?” she replied).

Her deportation had been temporarily halted for her testimony, but she would still need a permanent immigration remedy to stay long-term. Barbosa says she applied for asylum late last year, claiming that she fears retribution from the associates of the wedding agency and some people in the Uber case.

Illustration of Priscila Barbosa in front of a Christmas tree
Illustration: Michelle Mildenberg

As the rush of freedom subsided, Barbosa faced the sobering task of another new start. At least she had more than $117 this time, and her family had shipped back her designer clothes. Solving one immediate problem, she could get a legitimate driver’s license now; Massachusetts had started issuing them regardless of immigration status. She could also work while her asylum application was pending, and her English skills, burnished by constant use in prison, got her part-time gigs translating medical appointments and home-renovation sales pitches. But frankly, neither felt like Barbosa-sized jobs. Her boyfriend had moved on while she was in prison, so she moved into a studio apartment alone. She hit the old clubs and parties with a smaller circle of friends—her closest one had been deported, others distanced themselves. At times, depression sank in.

Sitting in her quiet living room in January, she said, “Maybe this is me adjusting to the world again.” As she spoke, she wobbled between the versions of herself. The Barbosa who meant well but, yes, did bad … but had been quite good at it, hadn’t she? The Barbosa vowing to never go anywhere near a gig app ever again, then the one who could still, when asked, recount every fraudulent keystroke. The repentant Barbosa who was glad getting caught forced her to quit. The pragmatic Barbosa who knew she would never have made a single fake profile had she just been legally allowed to work. With her future suspended between two countries, she wondered what was next.

So that’s it. Barbosa wanted you to know the full story, “the real Priscila,” the complex one. For the easy plot with a clean ending, there’s Instagram.

In December, Barbosa put up her first after-prison post, picking up her victory march where she’d left off. She stood in front of a suburban Boston ballroom’s Christmas tree in pleather bell bottoms, forehead newly Botox-smoothed, Louis Vuitton purse dangling from her wrist. She typed out a fresh bio: “Brazilian Living in USA … Grateful for Life. Paralegal. MasterChef. IT Professional.”

All of it more or less true.