DOJ Says Russian Went Beyond Election DisinformationFaces Wire Fraud Charge in Connection With Stolen Funds
A Russian national who is allegedly part of an ongoing disinformation campaign targeting the upcoming U.S. election faces a charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
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Artem Mikhaylovich Lifshits, 27, of St. Petersburg, Russia, allegedly served as a manager for “Project Lakhta,” a Russia-based effort to engage in political and electoral interference operations. The project’s goal is to disrupt the democratic process and increase public distrust of candidates and the political system, but it also ran cybercrime scams to steal money, prosecutors allege.
Liftshits is believed to be living and Russia, so he likely will never face the charge in the U.S. If he was convicted, he'd face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
"Since 2014, Project Lakhta has sought to obscure its conduct by operating through a number of entities, including [Russia’s] Internet Research Agency. The Translator Department, where Lifshits served as a manager beginning around January 2017, is alleged to be responsible for much of Project Lakhta’s influence operations, which are still ongoing," according to the Justice Department.
U.S. intelligence agencies said the Internet Research Agency created social media content seeking to divide U.S. voters and drive support for President Donald Trump's candidacy in 2016 (see: Before Elections, US Cut Russian Trolls' Internet Access).
Lifshits allegedly played an important role in the conspiracy to use the stolen identities of U.S. citizens to open fraudulent accounts at banks and cryptocurrency exchanges, according to court documents unsealed Thursday. The stolen money was used to fund Lakhta's operations and for Lifshits’ personal financial gain, prosecutors allege.
"Lifshits allegedly conspired with other group members to obtain means of identification of U.S. citizens, from which he opened fraudulent accounts at banking and cryptocurrency exchanges in the victims’ names," the Justice Department says.
Lifshits joined Project Lakhta in July 2015 and was named head of its Translator Department in January 2017, prosecutors say.
The Translator Department conducted social media operations using YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Its primary goal was to sow discord in the United States political system, incite civil unrest and polarize Americans by promoting socially divisive issues, with particular emphasis on racial divisions and inequality in the United States, court documents say.
Project Lakhta's Operations
The indictment alleges that Project Lakhta members traveled to the U.S. to collect intelligence, establish a computer infrastructure and build their influence campaign to reach millions of U.S. citizens through social media.
Project Lakhta is also believed to have engaged in political and electoral interference operations targeting populations within the Russian Federation, nations in the European Union and Africa, as well as Ukraine, prosecutors say.
In 2018, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, of St. Petersburg, Russia, allegedly the chief accountant for Project Lakhta, was charged with coordinating a four-year campaign to spread divisive themes aimed at disrupting the U.S. political system (see: Feds Charge Russian With Midterm Election Interference).
Earlier this month, Facebook reported the Russian-backed IRA is again using sham accounts and fake news sites to spread disinformation in advance of the November election.
Facebook said it removed 13 accounts and two pages from its platform in August that had links to the IRA. Twitter also removed several accounts from its platform (see: Russian Election Misinformation Campaign Re-Emerges).
In another move designed to bolster election security ahead of November, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control on Thursday imposed sanctions on four Russia-linked individuals, including Lifshits, for attempting to influence the U.S. electoral process. Three are suspected of controlling cryptocurrency accounts that help fund the IRA troll farm's work, according to the Treasury announcement.
Also sanctioned was Andrii Derkach, a member of Ukraine's parliament who allegedly works as a Russian agent. Derkach is suspected of spreading disinformation about the 2020 election, including spreading false stories about Democratic nominee Joe Biden, according to U.S. intelligence reports (see: US Intelligence Adds More Details on Election Interference).