Arrest of Russian national in Spain NOT linked to US election hacking

The arrest of Pyotr Levashov, the St Petersburg-based Russian national apprehended in Spain this week, was not linked with the alleged ‘hacking’ of the US election by Russia, but on the programmer’s involvement in spamming.

Early reports from newswire Reuters had suggested that one of the reasons why Levashov was arrested was over claims that he was involved in the supposed hacking of the US election. Reuters, though, later rowed back on those claims, although not before they had been repeated in multiple reports on the arrest.

Levashov, according to security blogger Brian Krebs, is better known as ‘Severa’, a hacker moniker used in a number of Russian-language cyber crime online forums, where he was the linchpin connecting virus writers with spammers.

Indeed, Levashov is currently number seven in the Spamhaus list of the Top-10 worst spammers, and the US Department of Justice believes that Levashov has also worked with notorious US spammer Alan Ralsky, convicted of running pump-and-dump spam scams intended to inflate the meagre values of penny stocks in the US.

Krebs claims that Levashov “was responsible for running multiple criminal operations that paid virus writers and spammers to install ‘fake anti-virus’ software,” which mimics genuine anti-virus software, flagging false alerts about infections that can be solved by paying for a full licence for the fake software.

Krebs also links Levashov with the Waledac spam botnet, which used between 70,000 and 90,000 compromised computers to send as many as 1.5 billion spam emails every day. Microsoft took down the network in an operation in 2010

Krebs is familiar with Levashov from the research he conducted into his book, Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime.

“Severa likely made more money renting Waledac and other custom spam botnets to other spammers than blasting out junk email on his own. For $200, vetted users could hire one of his botnets to send one million pieces of spam.

“Junk email campaigns touting auction and employment scams cost $300 per million, and phishing emails designed to separate unwary email users from their usernames and passwords could be blasted out through Severa’s botnet for the bargain price of $500 per million,” claimed Krebs. 

And the only connection with so-called ‘election hacking’, suggested Krebs, is with the Russian presidential elections in 2012, where a botnet associated with Levashov sent emails linked to fake news suggesting that opposition candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, running against Vladimir Putin, had come out as gay.

The ease with which Levashov was apprehended by Spanish police at the behest of the US, and the relative impunity with which he has been able to operate at home, once again indicates links between Russian government figures and various forms of cyber crime.  

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