Russian jailed for eight years in the US for writing code that sifted botnet logs for web banking creds for fraudsters • The Register

The Russian programmer was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in America for participating in a large network of cybercriminals who hacked and destroyed the victims’ bank accounts.

Alexander Brovko, 36 years old, was arrested in the Czech Republic in 2019 and extradited to America after a long inspection of Russian hacker groups. According to the U.S. government, he was a member of elite online forums created for Russian-speaking cybercriminals to collect and share tools and services for criminals.

Brovko was born and raised in a middle-class Russian family and graduated as a systems engineer in 2006. According to court documents [PDF], however, he lost his job in the printing and advertising world after a disagreement with management.

He then worked for a former classmate who needed help to direct internet traffic to specific sites that became a gateway to the world of cyber fraud. Brovko says he was ashamed of the job, but couldn’t find another paid job.

Brovko was almost certainly stunned by the master of the ring: Alexander Tverdokhlebov, who emigrated from Russia in 2007, was granted American citizenship and lived in California. In 2017 he was arrested and sent to prison for nine years for launching a botnet with an estimated 500,000 infected computers. Brovko’s indictment for 2018 contains several references to the evidence that A.T. has submitted to the authorities.

The capers worked like this: The Hard Bread would have access to thousands of compromised computers, all remotely controlled by malware that would also collect usernames and passwords from these computers. Brovko was hired to scan the logs of these botnets for online banking information released by the malware and then used by the attackers to steal millions of dollars from U.S. accounts in fraudulent transfers.

Browko has written a program to display this data automatically. He also carried out a manual data search and checked whether the username/password combinations for the bank accounts were still working. Prosecutors say he wrote down the amount of money in people’s accounts to mark those who deserve attention.

Quality control

When the computer code did not allow effective data analysis, Brovko supplemented his computer efforts with manual data extraction, according to the indictment [PDF].

Brovko’s second task was to verify the quality of the information he had identified about the victim. He did this, for example, when he tried to log into the victim’s bank account with the stolen usernames and passwords he had identified. If he could login, he would know that the combination of username and password is still valid.

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For his efforts, Brovko Tverdokhlebov paid about $70,000 a year, money that his lawyer claimed to use to support his wife and son. It has also sold its services to other cybercriminals and has even tried to sell some of its own bank details via online criminal networks. When the police searched his house, they seized a large amount of material, which was then used as evidence against him.

In February, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the United States for bank transfer and bank fraud, while the second accusation of conspiracy with access devices was withdrawn as part of an agreement Brovko had concluded with the authorities.

Although he was threatened with eight years in prison and another five years in supervised custody, Brovko was released: The recommended sentence for his crimes was 20 to 24 years. He was also sentenced to a symbolic $100 fine, ranging from $50,000 to $200 million, if he was formally convicted.

In an official report on the verdict, Brovko claimed to be part of a $100 million conspiracy, although the figure is somewhat suspicious: It is based on the data of 200,000 devices and PCs stored on Brovko’s computer equipment, multiplied by $500, the legal minimum for charging for unauthorized access to the devices.

Money problems

For example, his lawyer argued that the government’s calculation of the $100 million damage was exaggerated and arbitrary and should not carry much weight. The lawyer also stated that the U.S. Penal Commission had established that this calculation greatly exaggerated the seriousness of the offence.

The big problem in this case is that Brovko is accused of more damage to property than the person who actually used the system, Tverdokhlebov, simply because he had less stolen data on his computers at the time of his arrest, according to Brovko’s lawyer. For example, the lawyer stated that Brovko could not get a longer prison sentence than Tverdokhlebov, which the judge finally accepted and gave him eight years in prison instead of the nine years that Tverdokhlebov had.

The U.S. Attorney for East Virginia, Zachary Terwilliger, said about the verdict: Alexander Brovko used his programming skills to facilitate the theft and widespread use of stolen personal and financial information, resulting in an estimated loss of more than $100 million. Our agency is committed to bringing these criminals to justice and protecting our communities as cybercrime becomes an increasingly visible threat. ®

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