Dressed in leopard-print pajamas and wraparound sunglasses while proudly holding up a cat, Evgeniy Bogachev looks more like your eccentric uncle than the “most wanted cyber criminal in the world”.
But for US intelligence agencies who have spent years pursuing the elusive Russian, that’s exactly what he is, reports The New York Times.
The 33-year-old is thought to be the mastermind behind arguably the most sophisticated cybercrime network the world has ever seen.
At his height, Bogachev had control of more than a million computers around the world and was responsible for creating a network of infected computers that he used to siphon millions of dollars from the bank accounts of unsuspecting people and foreign businesses.
The US government has bounty of $4 million on his head for any information that leads to his capture.
In December, the Obama administration announced sanctions against Bogachev along with five others in …[the] belief that Russia used cyber hacking to influence the outcome of the latest presidential election.
It’s believed the US is currently tracking the whereabouts of Bogachev, who the FBI says also uses the online monikers “lucky12345” and “slavik” in case he ventures outside his home country. But even though he has previously traveled internationally using three fake Russian passports, it seems unlikely that he would tempt fate by leaving Russia—a place where he appears to be protected by Moscow.
A US intelligence operative who spoke with the Times believes Bogachev is in cahoots with the Russian government who have happily turned a blind eye to his larceny and cyberfraud in order to boost their espionage capabilities.
Given his skills, the Russian government was apparently more than happy to let him steal money from bank accounts all over the world, while government officials piggybacked on his hacking exploits and searched the same computers for useful files and e-mails.
However the closest the US intelligence community has publicly come to proving collusion of this type was when they discovered a target of a cybercrime investigation had shared a picture of his passport with someone they believed to be a Russian government official.
Bogachev’s hacking career began well over a decade ago, leading to the creation of a malicious software program famously known as GameOver Zeus.
It was this program that he, along with about half a dozen associates who called themselves “The Business Club” managed to hack into countless bank accounts and skim millions of dollars, strictly from foreign victims.
“It is believed GOZ is responsible for more than one million computer infections, resulting in financial losses of more than $100 million,” the FBI says on the wanted poster for Bogachev.
In 2014, a joint sting shut down the network and liberated computers infected with the malware.
The group also ran ransomware attacks in which they took control of valuable files and demanded payment for their return.
To the considerable embarrassment of US law enforcement, one of the victims was a police station in Massachusetts, which had to pay the criminal syndicate to retrieve its database of mugshots.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) March 12, 2017
In pictures of him circulated online, Bogachev could almost be mistaken for Dr Evil from Austin Powers. At one point during his criminal spree he owned two large villas in France and had a fleet of cars scattered around Europe.
According to the Times, despite a history of being intensely secret, he now lives openly in his home town of Anapa, a run-down resort town near the Black Sea in southern Russia, where he owns a large apartment on the shore and enjoys taking his yacht out.
In 2014, using recently unsealed details from a US indictment, the UK’s Telegraph travelled to his last known address in Anapa and found he was thought of as somewhat of a hero.
When the paper told his neighbours why they were looking for him, the residents seemed impressed by his rap sheet.
“What a talented guy,” said Mikhail, 23, who recognised Bogachev’s FBI photo as the man he would see in the lobby with his wife and nine-year-old daughter, the Telegraph reported.
“Sitting at his computer at home, he broke into our enemies’ camp, but did not harm his fellow Russians,” he said.
“What a great dude,” added Vazgen Atanasov, a taxi driver. “Judging by what Americans do to other people, what Bogachev is said to have done to them serves them right.”
A large community of Russian-based hackers populate the dark web and Russian-language forums devoted to cyberfraud where they buy and trade credit card details and account passwords, as well as specifically designed malware to break into people’s systems.
It’s an online world where hackers swap secrets, malware codes and can buy a bunch of people’s credit card information for as little as $5 and then use it to help break into their bank accounts.
It’s also a world that has proved very lucrative for the likes of Bogachev — whose case highlights the potential link between rogue hackers and the Russian government.
For Russia’s surveillance-obsessed intelligence community, Bogachev’s exploits may have created an irresistible opportunity for espionage, US officials say. And according to them, a mutually beneficial arrangement ensued.
For its part, the FBI says it continues to pursue Mr Bogachev.
This article was originally published at news.com.au