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Conning the desperate How scammers exploit the information vacuum around Russia's missing soldiers
Original story by Verstka. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
Since the start of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, family members of missing soldiers have frequently posted in online groups seeking information about their lost relatives. In response, they often get private messages from strangers offering to help for a fee — offers that almost invariably prove to be scams. Journalists from the independent outlet Verstka dug into how these frauds work and even spoke to one con artist who explained how he and his prison cellmate concocted their scheme. In English, Meduza summarizes this report.
$78 to send a message into the void
Vladislava and Anna live in Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk region. Though they don’t know one another, they have several things in common: they both have relatives who went missing after deploying with the Russian army, and they both recently received identical messages from someone named Yulia Ivanova who claimed to be a journalist from the now-closed pro-Russian Ukrainian TV channel NewsOne.
“Yulia Ivanova” told both women that their missing relatives — Vladislava’s uncle and Anna’s brother — were being held as Ukrainian POWs. She then sent them links to what she claimed was the official form for contacting the military command of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.” To submit a message, the form required a payment of 5,000 rubles (about $78). Both women saw the fee as a red flag, and both stopped responding.
“Yulia Ivanova’s” profile on the Russian social media site Vkontakte still exists, although the user hasn’t logged on since September. Her name does not appear anywhere on the old NewsOne site.
The “contact form” message was far from the first fraudulent offer Anna has received since she began searching for her brother. In September, for example, she got a message from a person using the name Slavyan Gorlov. He claimed to be a mercenary with the Wagner Group and immediately told her he was just an “ordinary fighter” who “doesn’t need anything” from her.
“We recently accompanied a prisoner exchange representative. We know he’s being held captive by the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” Gorlov said, referring to Anna’s brother. He told her she was unlikely to get her brother back through a prisoner swap and that her best option would be to “buy him back” from the Ukrainian military. After Gorlov offered to serve as her representative, Anna decided he must be a scammer and blocked him.
Verstka has learned that "Slavyan Gorlov" is most likely a 23-year-old man from Russia’s Primorsky Krai named Yegor Morozov. The photos on his Vkontakte account are taken from other users, but he’s been using one of them since at least 2016 on ten different pages under various names.
Diana (name changed), who lives in Russia’s Komi Republic, is also searching for her missing brother. She told Verstka that she received a call from an unknown number on the app Viber after she included her phone number in a recent post about her search. When she answered, a man told her that her brother was being held captive by Ukraine, and that she needed to send money to a bank account belonging to someone named Alexey Kidyarov to save him. As proof, the man sent her a screenshot from a video showing two young men in Russian military uniforms in front of the Ukrainian flag.
According to Diana, her brother’s head was “crudely photoshopped” into the photo. She refused to send the money.
Verstka’s investigators found that Alexey Kidyarov is likely a 19-year-old resident of Novosibirsk who’s been on the police’s radar for years.
Pay-what-you-want for supernatural ‘insight’
Other scammers profiting off of soldiers’ disappearances take a different approach: they claim to be psychics. Often, these people offer to use their powers to determine whether a soldier is alive or dead, or to perform rituals that they say will prompt the missing soldier to contact his desperate relative.
In some cases, relatives of missing soldiers reach out to these “mediums” themselves. In one social media group, Russians post pictures and descriptions of their missing family members, asking “psychics” to explain what happened to them in the comments.
Journalists from Verstka sent the photo of one man who died in Ukraine in early December to four “psychics” from the group. All four said that the man is alive, each telling a different story about his current circumstances. Two of them asked to be paid (any amount) for their “work.”
$4,500 for a ‘top spot’ on the prisoner swap list
It’s also common for scammers to claim they can help relatives purchase “top spots” on the Russian Defense Ministry’s prisoner-exchange list. In December, for example, Anna Zhukova, a woman from the occupied city of Horlivka in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, received a message from a user named Alexander Kisel. He told her that her son, who’s been missing since September, is being held as a POW, and that she had two options for getting him back.
The first option, he said, would be for her to travel to Moscow to meet with someone named Tatyana Sokolova, who he claimed had “gotten more than 100 men out of captivity.” But if Anna couldn’t get to Moscow, Kisel said, she could simply send the fee to Sokolova’s bank account. He claimed that for 300,000 rubles ($4,640), she could guarantee her son one of the “top ten” spots on the prisoner-exchange list; a spot in the top 20 would cost 200,000 rubles ($3,095), a spot in the top 30 would cost 120,000 rubles ($1,857), and one in the top 60 would cost 60,000 rubles ($928).
When Kisel was unable to provide a photograph of her son or details about his location, Anna decided not to send the money. The next day, she called the hotline for relatives of missing soldiers operated by the “People’s Militia” of the self-proclaimed “DNR.” A worker told her that her son was on a list of soldiers who had been killed and invited her to come identify his body. “I’m 80-percent certain it’s my son, but I can’t tell for sure. We’re going to do a DNA test,” Anna told Verstka after her visit to the morgue.
A correspondent from Verstka contacted Alexander Kisel and asked to meet with Tatyana Sokolova in Moscow. He agreed and arranged a meeting, but on the agreed-upon day, he stopped answering his phone until late at night, when he suggested they meet on a different day.
Six bucks for a ‘call with your missing son’
Another popular scam is to trick people into paying for the “chance to talk on the phone” with their captive or injured relative. Svetlana, the mother of a missing Wagner PMC fighter, nearly fell for such an offer when a man contacted her online and claimed her son was in a hospital in the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic.”
“He's wounded in his thigh. [...] Don’t worry — he’s on an IV drip right now, on painkillers. If you need, I can help you get in touch. Send 400 rubles [$6] to this card number: [...]. You’ll talk to him, and maybe it’ll calm you down,” the man told her in a series of audio messages.
When Svetlana asked why she needed to pay, the man said it was for the “roaming” fee. She ultimately decided against it.
The man who contacted Svetlana used the name Vasiliy Van-Lov. Using one of the card numbers he gave her, Verstka managed to determine that “Vasiliy’s” real name is Vladimir. When a journalist called him over video and asked about his extortion scheme, Vladimir confessed everything and explained that he got the idea for the scam from a cellmate when he served time in prison.
“My last [prison] sentence was for petty theft,” he recounted. “[My cellmate] and I were put in quarantine together. He said, ‘Let’s do it this way: I’ll provide you with people’s names, you’ll find them on VKontakte, and we’ll split the money three ways.’ [Though] when we started the scheme, it turned out that we weren’t just sharing the money with three people — there were dozens of people involved.”
According to Vladimir, after he was released from prison in September, he signed up for a debit card and quickly started “earning.” He said he gets the personal data of Wagner fighters from his former cellmate, who’s still in prison. The cellmate gets the names from a prison employee who’s also in on the scheme. Verstka was able to confirm that person’s identity.
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“He provides me with the data of people who joined the special military operation [the invasion of Ukraine] with Wagner,” Vladimir explained. “I use the information to find their relatives on VKontakte and Odnoklassniki [another Russian social media service]. I write, ‘So-and-so, who goes by the call sign such-and-such, is requesting to speak to you. But we’re abroad, so we need money for the call. A regular call costs 400 rubles [$6.20], while a video call is 800 rubles [$12.40]. [The relative] sends me 400, and after 15–20 minutes, I call her back and tell her [the soldier] wants to do a video call, not just a regular call, so either send me the rest or I’ll send your money back. She goes, ‘Alright, I’ll pay the rest.’ Then she pays up, and 30 minutes later, I call her back and say something bad has happened, he needs painkillers, give us another hour and a half. And then I stop responding to them.”
The scammers have one rule for themselves, Vladimir said: They can’t request an amount greater than 2,500 rubles ($38.00), because that would cause potential misdemeanor charges to become criminal ones. In the last month, he told Verstka, he’s earned about 57,000 rubles ($880), which is just his share of the “210,000–220,000 rubles” ($3,250–$3,410) he’s tricked people into sending.
“As an extra security measure, I stay on very good terms with the officers at my local police station. Every day, usually, I call them and ask, ‘Well, fuck, guys, have you gotten any complaints against me?’”
According to court records, Vladimir’s most recent prison sentence was for stealing a bottle of vodka from a grocery store. The court noted multiple mitigating circumstances in Vladimir’s case: an admission of guilt, a compensation payment, and his obligation to pay alimony for his five-year-old daughter. Vladimir told Vertska that he’s participating in the scam to be able to afford his alimony payments.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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