Pavel Vrublevsky, the owner of Russian payments firm ChronoPay and the subject of an upcoming book by this author, was arrested today in Moscow for witness intimidation in his ongoing trial for allegedly hiring hackers to attack against Assist, a top ChronoPay competitor.
Vrublevsky is on trial for allegedly hiring two brothers — Igor and Dmitri Artimovich — to use their Festi spam botnet to attack Assist, a competing payments processor. Prosecutors allege that the resulting outage at Assist prevented Russian airline Aeroflot from selling tickets for several days, costing the company at least USD $1 million.
Vrublevsky was imprisoned for six months in 2011 pending his trial, but was released at the end of that year after admitting to his role in the attack. Later, he recanted his jailhouse admission of guilt. Today, he was re-arrested after admitting to phoning a witness in his ongoing trial and offering “financial assistance.” The witness told prosecutors he felt pressured and threatened by the offer.
Two months ago, I signed a book deal with Sourcebooks Inc. to publish several years worth of research on the business of spam, fake antivirus and rogue Internet pharmacies, shadow economies and that were aided immensely by ChronoPay and — according to my research — by Vrublevsky himself.
Vrublevsky co-founded ChronoPay in 2003 along with Igor Gusev, another Russian businessman who is facing criminal charges in Russia stemming from his alleged leadership role at GlavMed and SpamIt, sister programs that until recently were the world’s largest rogue online pharmacy affiliate networks. Huge volumes of internal documents leaked from ChronoPay in 2010 indicate Vrublevsky ran a competing rogue Internet pharmacy — Rx-Promotion — although Vrublevsky publicly denies this.
My previous reporting also highlights Vrublevsky’s and ChronoPay’s role in nurturing the market for fake antivirus or scareware products. One such story, published just days before Vrublevsky’s initial arrest, showed how ChronoPay executives set up the domains and payment systems for MacDefender, a scareware scam that targeted millions of Mac users.
I found this development noteworthy because I, too, was offered financial assistance by Vrublevsky, an offer that very much seemed to me like a threat. In mid-2010, after thousands of emails, documents and hundreds of hours of recorded phonecalls from ChronoPay were leaked to this author, Vrublevsky began calling me at least once a day from his offices in Moscow. This continued for more than six months. In one conversation from May 2010 , Vrublevsky offered to fly me to Moscow so that I could see firsthand that he had “only a very remote relationship with this case.”
“My proposition to you is to come to Moscow, and if you don’t have money….I realize journalists are not such wealthy people in America, we’re happy to pay for it,” Vrublevsky said in a phone conversation on May 8, 2010.
When I politely declined his invitation, Vrublevsky laughed and said I was wrong to feel like I was being bribed or intimidated.
“It’s quite funny that you think somehow when you fly to meet me in Moscow or ChronoPay offices that you are in any possible danger from me for being murdered,” Vrublevsky said. “Come to Moscow and see for yourself. Take your notebook, come to my office. Sit in front of me and look around. Because you’re getting information, which, to be honest, is not factual.”
As I note in my book (due to be published in late Summer 2014) I believe Vrublevsky’s intention was more to somehow secure my future silence than to set the record straight. I did, however, eventually come to Moscow and interview him at his ChronoPay offices.
According to Russian news outlet Vedomosti, Vrublevsky is likely to spend another six months in prison for this latest stunt. He faces an additional two years in prison if he is ultimately found guilty of orchestrating the attacks on his company’s rival.