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Russian Hackers Are Afraid to Travel After U.S. Arrests Spam King

April 11, 2017, 5:37 PM UTC

News of police in Barcelona arresting the notorious Russian cyber criminal, Pyotr Levashov, has put hackers in his home country on edge.

In response to the surprise arrest, first reported on Sunday, other hackers are warning each other not to step foot in any country that has an extradition treaty with the United States.

“The biggest chatter is ‘do not travel. If you were involved in cyber crime, do not travel. Don’t go to Europe, don’t go to America,” said Andrei Barysevich, a director at cybersecurity company Recorded Future, who monitors hacker activity in Russian-speaking chat forums.

The arrest of Levashov in a Barcelona apartment, captured on video by a news outlet, came shortly before the Justice Department announced it had disabled a global network of tens of thousands of infected computers under his control.

Levashov allegedly used the computer network, known as a botnet, to send millions of spam messages promoting scams or seeking to infect the targets with malware. In some cases, he would rent the botnet to other criminals for as low as $300 for one million spam messages, according to security researcher Brian Krebs.

Levashov has been running such operations for years, and is on a top 10 list of the world’s worst spammers, and so his sudden arrest jolted the hacker community.

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“News of his arrest is absolutely huge in the underground communities. A lot of criminals are paranoid that such a respected old smart member of the community would get caught. It’s a huge blow to the industry,” said Barysevich.

The looming extradition of Levashov, who was reportedly traveling on a fake passport, is a coup for U.S. law enforcement, which has also nabbed other Russian hackers in extradition sweeps in recent months. Barysevich suggested the chain of arrests may have resulted from earlier suspects cooperating with U.S. authorities.

News of Levashov’s arrest also led to a flurry of speculation—based on an interview his wife gave to the Russian-controlled media outlet RT—that it was related to Russian hacking directed at the U.S. political system. But Barysevich and Krebs were skeptical of such claims, suggesting Levashov’s reputation as a notorious spammer is what led to the arrest.