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7 October, 2011  ▪  Bohdan Tsioupine

Who Is Scared Of Ukrainian Hackers?

So far Ukrainian cybercriminals have done damage to Western Europeans, but they may target Ukrainians at any moment

Kyivite Vasyl did not lose much – a little more than USD 200. But it remains a mystery who stole his money and exactly how. Never again will he have trust in the shiny bank card with the proud inscription “Visa.” All he knows is that in the far-away Egypt, a country he has never been to, someone withdrew 500 Egyptian pounds from an ATM located in Cairo. This amount was charged to Vasyl’s account which he opened a while ago when he, a student at the time, was working in Europe. A respectable Western bank did not credit the sum withdrawn back to his account. Moreover, it charged him commission for a foreign currency transaction. And now his balance is ridiculously low.


Misha Glenny, British researcher of organized crime, can explain to Vasyl how his money could end up in a thief’s pocket and who most likely helped the culprits. It took Glenny several years to collect materials for his new book on how criminals use the Internet. DarkMarket: CyberThieves, CyberCops and You has just been published in Great Britain, USA and Canada. His conclusion is that Ukraine is one of the centers of international cybercrime and that Ukrainian hackers laid the foundation of the criminal industry which has milked international financial and commercial institutions for billions of dollars. In 2010, British banks lost ₤46.7 million due to internet fraud alone. In the US, the total losses in various industries for the same year stand at nearly $1 billion.

Glenny agrees that ordinary Ukrainians are not too concerned about cybercrime. Hackers are not put in prison in Ukraine itself. There seems to be nothing to prosecute them for in Ukraine, because they have stolen, at least until recently, largely from foreign banks. “Another aspect which makes Ukraine relatively safe is that majority of cybercrimes target credit card owners,” Glenny says. “Credit card data is stolen online and sold all the time. Most of their owners live in the US, Western Europe, Japan and regions like the Middle East.” The number of internet users in Ukraine is growing and has reached over 50% of the entire population. Ukraine's commercial and financial sectors are under pressure to offer a growing number of online services.

DarkMarket mentions several Ukrainians, including Dmytro Holubov. The smart former Odessa resident stunned the author and his research assistant during meetings in Ukraine with his methodicalness, commitment to his goals and charisma, as well as his ability to evade, always with a nice smile, numerous awkward questions. One of them is this: How were investigative bodies, including the FBI and the U.S. Department of the Treasury, able to collect and transfer to Ukraine such convincing evidence about his duties that he was arrested? He was moved from Odesa to the Lukianivka pre-trial detention unit in Kyiv where he spent about six months. Why did two Party of Regions MPs decide to get him released on bail?

Glenny gives Holubkov the benefit of the doubt. He says that Holubkov may indeed not owe anything to anyone, as he claims. This case, like many others in Ukraine, never reached court. After his release Holubkov went into politics: he founded, headed and officially registered the Internet Party of Ukraine in 2010. In one of his interviews he jokingly said that he did not know a single hacker and asked to be shown at least one. His party is actively lobbying for Maksym Yastremsky, former Kharkiv resident accused of online crimes and imprisoned in Turkey, to be transferred to Ukraine. The Turkish court rejected the request of the U.S. Department of Justice to extradite him to the USA and instead sentenced him to 30 years in prison in the spring of 2009.


The person who acted online used the nick “Maksik,” not the name of Maksym Yastremsky. Showing the link between a real person and a nick is one of the greatest challenges for both investigators and researchers like Glenny. “If Dmytro Holubov is Script, then he is one of the best known hackers of the past decade. Script is also linked to another Ukrainian hacker with the pseudo Boa – Roman Veha,” Glenny says. He met him in Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York City. Veha’s case is shrouded in mystery, and his situation is somewhat like that of prisoners suspected of terrorism and kept in the Guantanamo Bay by the Americans.

The author even betrays a note of sympathy as he writes about Veha, who was arrested in Cyprus back in 2004: “It is important to remember that the court has yet to prove that this Ukrainian is guilty, and the fact that he has spent many years behind bars is a serious concern.” What do American investigators charge Ukrainian hackers with? How did it happen that Vasyl’s bank card suddenly had a clone which traveled to Egypt and was used to withdraw a neat sum for someone else’s beneft?

Glenny writes that initially, it all looks like a boring computer game with no-one reaching into anyone else’s pockets. Hackers’ work is purely intellectual. For example, they create computer viruses which clandestinely plant themselves in hundreds and thousands of computers to one day launch a coordinated attack on the online databases of companies that store their clients’ financial information. Some hackers are commissioned by true criminals to do so, while other simply offer the stolen info for sale, again online.

Glenny drew the idea for his book’s title, DarkMarket, from a court case about an internet forum with this name. Hackers used it to trade stolen information. DarkMarket was closed in 2008 after an FBI agent had infiltrated it under a well-chosen alias. As a result, nearly 60 people were arrested in different countries.

From hackers, information often goes into dirtier hands: bank cards are cloned and given to trusted people who are told to use them to withdraw money. This is best done is exotic countries like Egypt where the police are less vigilant and more corrupt than in America or Europe. There are, of course, many other ways hackers can cooperate with criminals but Glenny says this method is one of the most common.


In the words of the British researcher, Ukraine has turned into one of international cybercrime centers due to the combination of such factors as a high unemployment rate among young educated people who have no prospects for applying their talents and the inefficient law enforcement and judiciary systems. Another reason is that influential officials or MPs offer protection. Glenny believes that China, Turkey and Russia are the biggest centers of cybercrime, even though this type of criminal activity is less tied to state borders and national boundaries than other types of connections. The Pentagon announced this year that cyberspace is the fifth space, in addition to land, sea, air and outer space, in which enemy attacks and warfare can occur.

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