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Arson by proxy How phone scammers are tricking older and vulnerable Russians into setting fire to conscription offices
For more than six months, senior citizens throughout Russia have been setting fire to military conscription offices and banks, not bothering to hide from police officers or security cameras. After being arrested, they’ve proceeded to give implausible explanations that often involve debts or loans. At least 16 such cases have been reported publicly. Almost all of these arson attempts have been unsuccessful, though the authorities are investigating at least two incidents as terrorist attacks. The independent news outlet Mediazona recently published an overview of these cases, finding that unusual phone scams are a root cause. In English, Meduza summarizes the report.
The first case
Last year, in late August, 65-year-old Moscow resident Yelena Belova set fire to a BMW belonging to Evgeny Sekretarev, a high-ranking military official. During her subsequent arrest, Belova cried out, “Glory to our beautiful Ukraine!” and “Azov is power!” Anti-war Telegram channels initially rejoiced at what they assumed was an act of conviction, but it later became clear that Belova had been forced to carry out the attack by phone scammers.
According to her relatives, Belova received a phone call from strangers just days before the incident. The callers purportedly convinced her to take out several loans and send the money to them before talking her into setting Sekretarev’s car on fire, telling her that the attack would “help Russian soldiers,” according to the Telegram channel Baza.
The scammers led Belova to believe that the police officers who arrested her were actually “bandits,” and that she should “tell them hello from Azov.” Belova’s relatives said that she “supports the special military operation [the Kremlin's term for the invasion of Ukraine] and would never choose to set fire to a vehicle, especially that of a military commander.”
A call, a loan, an arson attempt
The attack on Sekretarev’s BMW was the first in a series of similarly odd incidents.
On March 27, for example, a 67-year-old Nizhny Tagil resident named Olga went to a conscription office with a bottle of acetone, two plastic containers of flammable mixtures, and gauze. She doused a piece of the gauze with acetone and tried to light it on fire, but the police stopped her before she could finish, according to the Telegram channel Shot.
Olga told the officers that “some strange man who introduced himself as an employee of some bank” had been calling her and trying to get her to set the conscription building on fire for the last month. Shortly after, while she was still being arrested, she received another call from the scammer, who told her that the officers apprehending her were fake.
A source from Russia’s security forces told the news site E1.ru that the scammers initially stole all of Olga’s money before promising to return it if she burned down the conscription office.
“Last year, her son died of blood cancer. She’s been divorced for years. She’s been left alone with two daughters. In early March, telephone scammers took her apartment after they talked her into selling it and taking out three loans to keep her accounts from being blocked. They promised to help her declare bankruptcy, but in reality they left her with no apartment and no money,” said the source.
Nonetheless, according to the officer, the scammers promised to return everything if Olga threw the Molotov cocktail at the enlistment office. The source said he suspects the authorities will release Olga and “prioritize the search for the con artists,” who he said are likely located in Ukraine.
As of late April, Mediazona has counted 16 attacks committed by people being deceived or extorted by scammers.
In 11 of these cases, the arsonists were older than 55. The exceptions were a 36-year-old mother who brought her newborn baby along when she attempted to set fire to a bank, a 30-year-old disabled man, a 48-year-old man with an alcohol addiction, a 22-year-old college student, and a 38-year-old woman.
Seven of the attacks were carried out at banks or ATMs, while seven others were carried out at military enlistment offices.
In one case, a person threw a Molotov cocktail at a police station, while the perpetrator in another case set fire to a car that belonged to a Defense Ministry official.
In most of the incidents, there was no actual damage. Perpetrators also frequently behaved irrationally — for example, by throwing Molotov cocktails at guarded facilities with security cameras, or by not even trying to escape after making failed attempts.
These arson attempts have occurred throughout Russia, including in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kuzbass, Tatarstan, Karelia, Mordovia, and Komi, as well as the Irkutsk, Vologda, and Sverdlovsk regions, and Krasnodar Krai.
Down to a science
Most of the incidents have followed a basic pattern.
First, a scammer calls an elderly or otherwise vulnerable person on the phone, introducing himself as a bank employee or a security officer. After tricking the victim out of their money, the scammer promises to return it in exchange for the person setting fire to a conscription office, bank, or other facility. Apparently, they often instruct the victims to shout pro-Ukrainian slogans while carrying out these attacks.
For example, Aisulu, a 63-year-old who was arrested for setting fire to ATM machines in the town of Aznakayevo, told police that scammers stole 100,000 rubles ($1,260) from her but promised to return the money if she carried out the attack, according to the Telegram channel Baza.
The channel Shot report a similar story involving a 68-year-old from Angarsk named Vera: Scammers stole almost 1.5 million rubles (around $19,000) from her and demanded that she throw Molotov cocktails at a local military conscription office.
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Sometimes the schemes are slightly more complex: in some cases, for example, other callers convince the victims to commit arson by claiming it will help them catch the people who stole their money.
Thirty-year-old Mordovia resident Andrey Rodkin transferred money to scammers before throwing two Molotov cocktails at a conscription office in Kovylkino, thinking it would convince the thieves to return his money. “A stranger told him a vivid story about how scammers had indeed stolen his money, and how they were colluding with a policeman, and that [Rodkin] needed to settle the score. Moreover, [they said], he had a good opportunity: the officer responsible was supposedly in the conscription office at the time,” wrote Baza. Both Baza and Shot also reported that Rodkin has been diagnosed with a mild mental disability.
The case of a 22-year-old college student from St. Petersburg stands out somewhat. He was contacted over the phone by an “investigator” who told him that 100,000 rubles ($1,257) had been donated from his bank account to a “Ukrainian terrorist organization.” To avoid being prosecuted for state treason, the student sent the scammers 123,000 rubles ($1,544), according to Baza. They then instructed him to set fire to a conscription office that they claimed contained a “device that sends clients’ money to terrorists from Ukraine.” On March 17, he went to the office and poured flammable fluid onto it but was then stopped by eyewitnesses.
It’s difficult to say for certain how the arsonists in these cases actually feel about the war in Ukraine. Mediazona was able to find indications of only one of the victims’ feelings about the invasion. This year, in early March, 60-year-old Olga Shakleina tried to set fire to a Sberbank branch in Anapa while shouting “Glory to Ukraine!” Judging by her profile on the Russian social media site Odnoklassniki, however, Shakleina in fact supports the war; her posts promoting help for homeless animals appear alongside content about “Ukrainian Nazis” and the brave Russian soldiers fighting against them.
Mediazona was able to find six criminal cases opened against deceived arsonists. In at least two other incidents, Russia’s news media reports that prosecutors haven’t yet decided if they will press felony charges.
Two pensioners have been charged with terrorism for committing arson after being defrauded: 59-year-old construction surveyor Yelena Sharova and 60-year-old cleaning company employee Nadezhda Kornilova. Both were added to Russia’s official list of terrorists and extremists, though Sharova was later removed.
One other senior citizen arsonist, a 73-year-old Pervouralsk resident, was charged with “attempted disorderly conduct committed by a group by prior agreement.”
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