Companies Linked to Russian Ransomware Hide in Plain Sight


MOSCOW — When cybersleuths traced the millions of dollars American companies, hospitals and city governments have paid to online extortionists in ransom money, they made a telling discovery: At least some of it passed through one of the most prestigious business addresses in Moscow.

The Biden administration has also zeroed in on the building, Federation Tower East, the tallest skyscraper in the Russian capital. The United States has targeted several companies in the tower as it seeks to penalize Russian ransomware gangs, which encrypt their victims’ digital data and then demand payments to unscramble it.

Those payments are typically made in cryptocurrencies, virtual currencies like Bitcoin, which the gangs then need to convert to standard currencies, like dollars, euros and rubles.

That this high-rise in Moscow’s financial district has emerged as an apparent hub of such money laundering has convinced many security experts that the Russian authorities tolerate ransomware operators. The targets are almost exclusively outside Russia, they point out, and in at least one case documented in a U.S. sanctions announcement, the suspect was assisting a Russian espionage agency.

“It says a lot,” said Dmitri Smilyanets, a threat intelligence expert with the Massachusetts-based cybersecurity firm Recorded Future. “Russian law enforcement usually has an answer: ‘There is no case open in Russian jurisdiction. There are no victims. How do you expect us to prosecute these honorable people?’”

Recorded Future has counted about 50 cryptocurrency exchanges in Moscow City, a financial district in the capital, that in its assessment are engaged in illicit activity. Other exchanges in the district are not suspected of accepting cryptocurrencies linked to crime.

Cybercrime is just one of many issues fueling tensions between Russia and the United States, along with the Russian military buildup near Ukraine and a recent migrant crisis on the Belarus-Polish border.

The Treasury Department has estimated that Americans have paid $1.6 billion in ransoms since 2011. One Russian ransomware strain, Ryuk, made an estimated $162 million last year encrypting the computer systems of American hospitals…

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