5 NOTORIOUS Russian (and Soviet!) hackers

Vladimir Trefilov/Sputnik
Throughout the years, these cybercriminals have done damage that measures in hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars.

1. Murat Urtembayev — The first Soviet hacker

When a young graduate of the Moscow State University and an employee at the VAZ car-making factory found himself in dire financial circumstances in 1983, he appealed to his employers for help. The factory management discouraged Murat Urtembayev from looking for another job and promised him a promotion and increased salary.

Yet, as time passed, Urtembayev realized he was being tricked by management. He then devised a revenge plan. He would secretly alter the program used for running an assembly line and infect it with a malicious error; he would then intervene and fix the problem, gaining proper acknowledgment from the factory management which, he thought, had long been due.

As a result of Urtembayev’s intervention, the factory was paralyzed for three days. As this was not Urtembayev’s intent — he only planned to cause the problem to eliminate it immediately — he went to the management with a confession.

The Soviet criminal code did not stipulate what to do about cybercrimes and, therefore, Urtembayev was found guilty of hooliganism and received a suspended sentence and a hefty fine, too. He also became the first Soviet hacker to be caught.

2. Stepanov, Petrov, and Maskakov — The first hackers to be sentenced in Russia

In 2013 and 2014, British online bookmakers faced extortion on an unprecedented scale. Amidst important matches and games, companies received threatening emails. Unknown hackers threatened to crush their websites with DDoS attacks — and stop streams of profit by doing so — unless the companies transfer tens of thousands of U.S. dollars to some obscure account registered in a third country. Refusing to comply with the unlawful demand resulted in tremendous financial losses for the British betting company.

A year-long investigation by the British police pointed to a few individuals located in Russia. The British authorities contacted the Russian police requesting assistance. Soon enough, the Russian law enforcement authorities detained three individuals and charged them with cybercrimes. The culprits — three tech experts in their twenties, who were believed to have gained some $4 million by way of extortion — each received a sentence some considered too harsh: eight years in a high-security prison.

3. Vladimir Levin — A hacker who allegedly turned $100 into $10 million

Vladimir Levin. / Source: TASS

Vladimir Levin. / Source: TASS

In 1994, a hacker fraudulently transferred more than $10 million from the accounts of the U.S.-based Citibank and attempted to cash it out via accounts registered in various countries around the world.

As Levin’s accomplices who attempted to withdraw the funds were detained at the request of the FBI, they pointed towards Vladimir Levin, an employee of a small St. Petersburg-based commercial firm called AO Saturn. Back in 1994, the Russian criminal code did not have a clause against cybercrimes and Levin — who had just become $10 million richer — was, technically, an innocent person in the eyes of Russian law enforcement. The hacker was also immune to requests of extradition from the U.S. authorities, as Russian law prohibits the extradition of Russian citizens.

It took an effort on part of the bank and the foreign officials to lure Levin to the UK, where he was arrested and extradited to the U.S. to stand trial.

After the U.S. court sentenced Levin to four years in prison, rumors arose claiming Levin’s technical and computer skills were far too inferior for a thief of such a magnitude and technical elegance. One theory, fuelled by anonymous revelations made online, has it that Levin was not the mastermind behind the heist, but that he only purchased access to the banking system for a mere $100 from a group of Russia-based hackers who broke in without a malign intent but, instead, out of curiosity and willingness to explore vulnerabilities in the Citibank servers. Levin was the one who received the punishment, however.

4. Evgeniy Bogachev — A hacker with a $3 million bounty on his head

“Wanted by the FBI,” says a poster depicting a middle-aged man with a shaved head and a somewhat sinister smile on his face. Pictured is Evgeniy Bogachev, one of the most notorious hackers in the world, a Russian citizen from the coastal city of Anapa in the Russian south.

The award of $3 million offered by the U.S. State Department for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Bogachev is a testament to the standing of this individual among the ranks of the world’s most-wanted cybercriminals. 

Going by the online monikers ‘lucky12345’ and ‘slavik’, Bogachev developed and utilized malicious Trojan-like software named ‘Zeus’ and ‘GameOver Zeus’ to allegedly engage in a “wide-ranging racketeering enterprise”, as the FBI stated it.

It is estimated that Bogachev’s activity has resulted in financial losses of more than $100 million. Even now, tips about his whereabouts regularly arrive in the FBI’s Pittsburgh office, but not a single one of them led to the arrest of the notorious Russian hacker, who seems to have laid low for now.

5. Fancy Bear — The hackers behind the DNC scandal

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testifies before a House Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC.

At the heights of the 2016 U.S. presidential election race, a collection of Democratic National Committee emails was stolen and leaked in a cyber attack of unprecedented audacity. The subsequent investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller claimed that the hackers behind the Fancy Bear group were associated with Russian military intelligence. Russian state authorities, however, denied the accusation multiple times.

Whatever its affiliation, the group is known for its advanced and highly sophisticated methods and a wide range of targets. Throughout the years, various governments and non-governmental organizations were said to have fallen victims to Fancy Bear. The hackers reportedly use malicious software named X-Agent, which allows them to control the infected computers indefinitely, capture screenshots, watch keystrokes and steal passwords.

In the words of Kurt Baumgartner, a principal security researcher at Kaspersky Labs’ global research team, struggling with Fancy Bear has “been like playing chess against someone and never knowing who the opponent is”.

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