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In U.S. Cybercrime Case, Track Record Indicates Russia Willing To Cooperate

Seventeen of the accused members of the ring are fugitives, and Russia's cooperation is considered vital in their arrest.
Seventeen of the accused members of the ring are fugitives, and Russia's cooperation is considered vital in their arrest.
NEW YORK -- The arrests of dozens of nationals from Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Belarus last week by U.S. law enforcement authorities investigating a multinational, multimillion-dollar fraud ring has set the stage for trials and prosecutions.

But not all those named in the case are in the United States. Seventeen are considered fugitives and are being actively sought by U.S. officials, who consider Moscow's cooperation crucial.

According to the criminal complaint, 11 of the 20 arrested are Russian citizens, aged 19 to 26.

Student Margarita Pakhomova, 21, was taken off a plane heading for Russia in September. Sofia Dikova, 20, was detained in January in New Jersey with a pile of fake passports used by so-called "money mules" to open bank accounts.

Artem Semenov, 23, was arrested in December 2009 while attempting to open a bank account under a false name. Released on bail, Semenov absconded and just four days later opened an account with a different false name at another bank. The complaint alleges he opened seven accounts in total.

These are just some of the lurid details in the compliant, which is more than a 100 pages long.

A number of those considered fugitives are known to have left for Russia or thought to be there. There is no extradition treaty between Russia and the United States.

John Bellinger, a partner in the law firm of Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., and a former legal adviser for the U.S. Department of State, says it's likely Moscow will cooperate.

"Unless there's something unusual about this case that we don't know about, I would anticipate that there would be a good cooperation between the U.S. prosecutors in New York and their counterparts in Russia," Bellinger says.

"There is a mutual legal assistance agreement between the United States and Russia in which both the U.S. and Russia have worked closely together for more than a decade on different law enforcement matters, including narcotics, terrorism, and cybercrime issues."

History Of Cooperation

The first widely reported case of someone hacking into the computer system of a U.S. bank was in 1994 -- the dawn of the Internet -- and, ironically, involved a Russian programmer.

Vladimir Levin of St. Petersburg was able to penetrate the Citibank computer system in New York and transfer $10 million to an overseas account.

He was later arrested and the stolen money was returned. Levin was tried in the United States and spent 19 months in jail. At that time, Russian law did not have provisions for Internet crimes.

Although Russia has still not signed onto the Council of Europe's 2001 Cybercrime Convention, Moscow has a record of cooperation with foreign law enforcement authorities in cases of cybercrimes that involve Russian citizens.

Russia's Interior Ministry has its own department, the so-called "Department K," which specializes in the investigation of cybercrimes and privacy breaches.

Bellinger says Russia wouldn't arrest its own citizens on U.S. charges. If an official request for assistance is made by U.S. authorities, the Russians will have to determine on their own that a crime has been committed under the provisions of the Russian Criminal Code.

In the past, U.S. authorities have shared information about criminal activity by Russian citizens in the United States. Bellinger says that in these cases, the Russians usually conduct their own investigation and make their own arrests, before charging the individuals under the provisions of the Russian Criminal Code.

"It's conceivable that that could happen in this case, that there would be, in fact there may have already been, some informal sharing of information that could result in arrest and prosecution of these individuals in Russia," he says.

Louise Shelley, who directs the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University in Virginia, says the same crime may be treated quite differently under U.S. and Russian law.

"Part of this indictment relates to computer crime in which there may not be adequate Russian law," she says. "Then there are some elements of the crime in which there may be adequate coverage under Russian law."

Shelley says that it is very likely that U.S. law enforcement authorities will soon make an official request for assistance to their Russian counterparts under the auspices of the mutual legal assistance agreement.

"There's a lot of cooperation that's going on routine cases, there are hundreds of cases," she says. "The access file of the FBI in Russia is hundreds and hundreds of ongoing cases and there's cooperation in a lot of them. There are cases on child pornography, and customs, and use of computers."

Youth No Excuse

Aleksandr Otchainov, who is a vice consul in the Russian Consulate-General in New York and a liaison with the arrested Russian citizens in the cybercrime case, says that none of those arrested have asked for consular assistance but are in "constant communication" with their parents back in Russia.

He says they are considering whether to retain private attorneys in the United States -- which will be expensive -- or use the public lawyers provided by the court.

"The consulate is providing consultative assistance, of course," Otchainov says. "There are several choices [defense attorneys], the parents are negotiating, trying to figure out what's the best option in this situation."

Otchainov says none of the parents have announced plans to travel to New York, but the consulate and Russia's Foreign Ministry is ready to provide logistical support if they do.

The Russian media is closely following the case of the arrested and fugitive Russians. Some media reports have emphasized the relatively young ages of the accused and suggested that they were targeted by the "money mules" because they were naive.

Otchainov says even if true, that doesn't relieve them of responsibility.

Both George Mason's Shelley and Otchainov agree that of the two, U.S. penalties for cybercrimes are tougher than Russian penalties.

And because the vast majority of Internet crimes are committed by people under 30, youth itself will not be seen as a compelling argument for leniency in the eyes of U.S. prosecutors and judges.

If convicted, each of the defendants could face between 10 and 30 years of prison and up to $250,000 in fines.

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