Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

College Student Has Earned 15 Million Miles by Hacking United

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

The last time Georgia Tech student Ryan Pickren was in the news, he had been arrested and faced up to 15 years in jail. Two days before a rivalry football game, he hacked into rival University of Georgia’s website to post a prediction for the game (caution: mild language). But now, he’s using his hacking skills for good — and United has generously rewarded him for his work.

Business Insider reported Friday that Ryan has earned a total of 15 million United miles from “white hat” hacking United Airlines. White hat (as opposed to black hat) hackers are computer experts who hack systems, companies and websites to discover and report vulnerabilities. Even the Pentagon ran a white hat program this year.

Hackers like Ryan are rewarded with up to 1 million United miles for each bug they find and report to United. Image provided by Ryan Pickren.

Ryan’s payout came from United’s Bug Bounty Program, which offers a reward of up to 1,000,000 United miles for reporting “high severity” bugs. While Ryan was unable to comment to The Points Guy about how many and what types of bugs he found, we can assume that the reward of 15 million miles means Ryan has likely found and reported 15 major issues in United’s systems. While it’s concerning that the airline’s systems were so porous, at least now United knows about these issues and can work to fix them.

Other white hat hackers have been wary of United’s bug bounty program. Other bug bounty programs give hackers the ability to try more creative methods of finding security faults — as long as the hacker reports all findings. However, United’s program threatens “possible criminal and/or legal investigation” for some of these methods. But, it seems these restrictions haven’t dissuaded Ryan from searching and finding flaw after flaw with United’s system.

White hat hackers have ended up with large tax bills for their efforts. Image courtesy of Jordan Wiens.
Other United hackers have ended up with large tax bills for their efforts. Image courtesy of Jordan Wiens via Twitter.

The other major disadvantage of United’s Bug Bounty is that the only payout is United miles. While TPG values United miles at 1.5 cents each, United values its miles rather proudly at 2 cents apiece. Other hackers have ended up with huge tax bills for their efforts. Hacker Jordan Wiens ended up having to pay taxes on $25,000 of income for earning 1.25 million United miles — even though he still hadn’t redeemed any of the miles for travel.

At United’s valuation of 2 cents per mile, Ryan Pickren will have to pay taxes on $300,000 of income. That’s perhaps what has partially motivated his donation of 5 million United miles to Georgia Tech. Subject to IRS limitations, this donation will earn Ryan a deduction of $100,000. Ryan knows that Georgia Tech can use these miles to help student engineers make the world a better place — such as through the Georgia Tech Engineers Without Borders program to bring clean drinking water to Uganda.

Get an around-the-world trip for the same price as flying from US to Japan round-trip.
15,000,000 United miles is enough to fly 100 people from the US to Africa to Tokyo and back to the US — all in business class!

Ryan initially started with the United Bug Bounty program to get enough miles to visit his girlfriend on the weekends. Well, now he can do a lot more than that! 15 million miles is enough for 600 domestic economy round-trips. But, having this many miles, he hopefully won’t fly economy class for a while.

If he can find the time to travel in the next 11 months, there are some incredible stopover awards you can still book before October 6. With 15 million miles, he has enough miles to fly 100 times — or 100 people — from the US to Africa to Japan to the US, all in business class!

H/T: Business Insider

Featured image by David McNew/Getty Images.

Fair disclosure: This article was written by a Georgia Tech grad. Go Jackets!

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Apply Now
  • Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Named Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, July 2016
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
  • No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
Intro APR Regular APR Annual Fee Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Rating
N/A 16.24%-23.24% Variable Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95 0% Excellent Credit