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‘You gave your word that you’d help the FSB!’ How scammers are cashing in on Russians’ fear of prosecution

Source: Meduza

As Russia’s war against Ukraine drags on and the number of Russians charged with treason continues to rise, telephone scams aiming to cash in on citizens’ fear of prosecution continue to run rampant in Russia. One common scheme works like this: callers posing as law enforcement officials convince victims that their identities have been used to send money to Ukraine — and that if they want to avoid felony charges, they need to transfer their savings to “secure accounts.” A new report from BBC News Russian tells the stories of two people who were targeted by these scams. Meduza shares an English-language summary.

In mid-May, 65-year-old Murad Ibragimov (name changed) got a call from an unknown number. The caller told Ibragimov that there was a mistake in his employment record that could lead to problems calculating his pension. To fix the error, the caller suggested that Ibragimov visit his local social welfare office, and even offered to sign him up for an appointment — all he needed was Ibragimov’s password on Gosuslugi, the Russian government’s public services portal. Ibragimov gave the stranger both his password and the security code that was sent to his phone. The caller then said he’d booked Ibragimov an appointment and told him goodbye.

According to Ibragimov’s police statement, which his family shared with BBC News Russian, Ibragimov received another call later that day. This new caller, who introduced herself as Masha, told him over video that his account on Gosuslugi had been hacked. After explaining that she had changed his password for security purposes, she transferred the call to a person who introduced himself as “Andrey Bakhov” and said he worked at Rosfinmonitoring, Russia’s Federal Financial Monitoring Service. He showed Ibragimov a false ID badge to “prove” he was a real official and then told him that scammers had stolen all of his money.

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As evidence of this, “Bakhov” sent Ibragimov a document allegedly from the Credit Bank of Moscow that indicated he had sent 4.5 million rubles ($52,000) to somebody named Denis Storozhuk. The caller then transferred Ibragimov to a person posing as “FSB Major Konstantin Vlasov”; Ibragimov could even see a portrait of Vladimir Putin hanging on the wall behind Vlasov in what he believed was the man’s FSB office.

Vlasov told Ibragimov that “Denis Storozhuk,” to whom he had supposedly sent money, was a “Mariupol resident” wanted for terrorism in Russia. BBC journalists determined that the real Denis Storozhuk is a lieutenant colonel in the Ukrainian border service who helped defend Mariupol in the spring of 2022, when the city was under siege by Russian forces. After Mariupol was captured, Storozhuk remained in hiding in Ukraine’s occupied territories for about a year. In the spring of 2024, he was put on trial in a Russian military court in Rostov-on-Don.

“Konstantin Vlasov” went on to accuse Ibragimov of aiding terrorism and sent him a “summons” on what appeared to be FSB letterhead that said he was an official witness in a felony case. Vlasov then proposed that Ibragimov take part in a “secret FSB operation” to catch the people who had supposedly stolen his money. It would work like this, he explained: the FSB would deposit the stolen money in Ibragimov’s account, he would withdraw it at a Credit Bank of Moscow location, and then he would transfer it to a “secure Justice Ministry account.”

Ibragimov was supposed to start by withdrawing two million rubles (about $23,000), but the first two bank branches he visited were unable to give him such a large amount. Finally, the scammers advised him to order the money for a different day.

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‘Deceptively close’ Fearing mobilization, some Ukrainians are risking a treacherous swim to Romania. Scammers are cashing in.

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‘Deceptively close’ Fearing mobilization, some Ukrainians are risking a treacherous swim to Romania. Scammers are cashing in.

The following morning, Ibragimov went to the bank and brought the money transfer receipt from his supposed payment to Denis Storozhuk that the hackers had sent him. The bank employees told him that the document had not been issued by that bank and that the employee whose name appeared on the form had never worked there. They also issued him an account statement confirming that all of his savings were still there.

During his next conversation with the “FSB major,” Ibragimov said that he had changed his mind and did not want to take part in the “secret operation.” “Vlasov” responded by transferring Ibragimov to his “superior,” a man who introduced himself as a “colonel” with the last name Gurov. This “colonel” began berating the pensioner: “What are you doing? Don’t you understand the situation our country’s in? Why are you resisting? You gave your word that you’d help the FSB!”

The man went on to threaten Ibragimov, saying a “convoy” would come for him if he refused to cooperate. At the same time, he promised that Ibragimov would receive compensation and even an “award” if he agreed to “help the authorities.”

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Ultimately, the scammers managed to convince Ibragimov to send them the two million rubles. Afterward, the “Rosfinmonitoring employee” sent Ibragimov a fake document indicating that an account had been opened in his name at Sberbank with the money he’d sent from his account.

At this point, Ibragimov became suspicious and went to the police. The officer on duty told him that the people on the phone had been scammers operating from Ukraine and that they “need to be defeated” there. He refused to help Ibragimov file a report, and eventually the 65-year-old returned home.

Even after Ibragimov’s attempt to file a police report, the scammers convinced him to send two million more rubles to them. His dealings with them didn’t stop until his son overheard one of the conversations, immediately realized he was being scammed, and began yelling at the callers for stealing his father’s savings.

A close call

The BBC also detailed a similar incident that happened in May to Natalia Odintsova (name changed), a 63-year-old professor in Moscow. The scam began when she received a text message that appeared to come from the dean of her university department. The message said that the authorities had launched an investigation into Odintsova and several of her colleagues. Odintsova would soon be contacted by an “FSB officer” named Roman Viktorovich, the message claimed.

According to Odintsova, she found it very plausible that law enforcement might be have taken an interest in her: after the start of the full-scale war, her daughter and son-in-law had left Russia, and Odintsova herself had helped collect signatures in support of Boris Nadezhdin, the anti-war politician who tried to participate in Russia’s presidential race earlier this year.

Shortly after getting the message from the “dean,” Odintsova received a call from an “FSB officer” who said Odintsova’s workplace had had a data leak and that somebody had sent money to the Ukrainian military in her name. As a result, the caller said, she could face treason charges.

The “FSB officer” then told her to fill out a series of documents that he said would allow law enforcement to “protect” her. As soon as the caller began mentioning large amounts of money, however, Odintsova began to suspect she was the target of a scam and hung up the phone. She later learned from her real dean that several of her colleagues had been contacted by the same scammers.

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