Russia Fails to Stop Alleged Hacker from Facing US Charges


The least interesting thing about the alleged Russian hacker who appeared Tuesday morning in a Virginia courtroom may end up being the charges he faces there. The Justice Department indicted Aleksei Yurievich Burkov on five counts related to his alleged role from from 2009 to 2013 running an online criminal marketplace, known as CardPlanet, that sold stolen credit card numbers. The scale of CardPlanet, as online forums go, was relatively small—150,000 stolen payment cards that resulted in about $20 million in fraudulent purchases, a far cry from the bust last year of the reportedly $530 million “In Fraud We Trust” marketplace.

You can read the 2016 Burkov indictment in full below. Unsealed Tuesday, it alleges that the 29-year-old former St. Petersburg resident used both CardPlanet and another online forum to commit financial fraud, and outlines how much cybercrime now resembles legitimate online businesses and shopping sites. Burkov, the indictment alleges, sold card details for between $2.50 and $10 a card, and even offered a literal money-back guarantee: He would refund the price of any cards that proved invalid. He also offered a special fee-based service, known as “checker,” that let would-be criminals instantly validate stolen card data. To keep out law enforcement, every prospective member of Burkov’s forum had to be “vouched for” by three existing members.

What makes separates Burkov’s case from run-of-the-mill online financial fraud, though, is the geopolitics that have unfolded since he was originally arrested in Israel nearly four years ago. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which in recent years has become ground zero for harboring cybercriminals, has begun aggressively fighting to protect hackers that get caught overseas.

At the request of the US Justice Department and the Secret Service—which had been chasing CardPlanet’s owner—Israel originally arrested Burkov when he was vacationing in Israel with his girlfriend in late 2015. It was an early catch in what has become a rising trend of Russian hackers caught while traveling outside Russia, often on vacation with girlfriends. (Most recently, in a case that still has US officials scratching their heads, one of the Internet Research Agency employees indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for interfering in the 2016 presidential election was actually arrested in Belarus—not typically a country friendly to western law enforcement—but then released and returned to Russia.)

As the US began to push for Burkov’s extradition through the Israeli legal system, Russia promptly stepped in and filed its own competing extradition request, saying that Burkov was actually wanted back home for internet fraud as well—a Russian tactic that has become commonplace in recent years. (The ploy even works sometimes; last year a Greek court sent an alleged Russian hacker arrested there back to Russia instead of the US.) It took until 2017 for an Israeli district judge to rule that Burkov should be sent to the US to face trial, but Burkov appealed. It was only this summer that the Israeli Supreme Court finally upheld the earlier ruling.

As Burkov’s case dragged on, Russia moved to make Israel think twice about handing him over to the US. In April, Russia arrested a 26-year-old Israeli woman, Naama Issachar, as she was changing planes in Russia en route to Israel from a yoga retreat in India. Issachar, who grew up in New Jersey and moved to Israel at 16, was detained after Russian authorities said they found 9.5 grams of marijuana in her possession; her detention and the criminal charge seemed odd, given that another US woman caught with twice as much marijuana at the St. Petersburg Airport this summer was let go with a $235 fine, and similar cases have met with less than a month of jail time. It quickly became clear that the Russian government was linking Issachar’s case to Burkov’s. Then Russian prosecutors upgraded the charge from drug possession to drug smuggling, a much more serious crime that—again—seemed ill-at-odds with the tiny amount she’d been charged with possessing.



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