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Federal Judge Sentences Russian Spammer to Time Served

Though prosecutors said Peter Levashov’s botnet spamming services helped facilitate other crimes, the judge credited the Russian national’s admission of responsibility.

(CN) — Prosecutors once described Peter Levashov as one of the internet’s most notorious spammers, a “bot master” of a network of tens of thousands of computers infected with malware that at one point could have spammed inboxes with 4 billion messages in a day.

On Tuesday afternoon, saying he was impressed with Levashov’s “prompt and complete acceptance of responsibility,” U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny sentenced the Russian national to time served.

“Thirty-three months is a long time and I’m sure it was especially difficult for you considering you were away from your wife and child, away from home,” Chatigny said.

Spanish authorities arrested Levashov while he vacationed in Barcelona in April 2017 as U.S. officials moved in to dismantle his botnet named Kelihos. He was extradited back to the United States and his case appeared in Connecticut’s federal district court.

During Levashov’s sentencing hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Chang said the spammer offered “spamming services that facilitated other crimes,” that he was part of a “criminal ecosystem.”

Besides spam messages, botnets can distribute malware and launch denial of service attacks, according to Chang.

In the government’s memorandum in aid of sentencing, Chang wrote Levashov’s Kelihos network distributed the ransomware named “JokeFromMars” in September 2016, though the prosecutor noted in the sentencing hearing Levashov largely acted before the rise of ransomware.

Prosecutors had asked for a sentence between 12 and 14.5 years of incarceration.

It is believed Levashov began sending spam mail in the late 1990s. Before his arrest, Levashov, aka Petr Severa, helped develop the Storm Worm Waledac and Kelihos botnets.

In September 2018, Levashov pleaded guilty to operating the Kelihos botnet, admitting to a count each of aggravated identity theft, causing intentional damage to a protected computer, wire fraud and conspiracy.

During the sentencing hearing, conducted over Zoom teleconferencing software, Chatigny said it was near unavoidable to come to the conclusion that Levashov used sophisticated means to operate.

Chatigny likened Levashov — with his advanced computer science degree, custom malware and command and control servers — as someone with specialized skills similar to that of a lawyer or doctor.

Antivirus and antispam programs struggled to respond to Levashov’s botnets, the judge said. He added it was unlike a high school kid who steals from store shelves or attempts to counterfeit money.

But while that may typically weigh towards a sentencing enhancement, the judge had qualms.

“I think that the guideline range substantially overstates the seriousness of your misconduct,” Chatigny told Levashov. 

Levashov’s attorney did not return emailed requests for comment. When reached for comment, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut said it would rely on its statements to the court and documents filed on the record.

Levashov’s attorney, Vadim Glozman of Illinois, told the court the crimes his client pleaded guilty to were serious, but they came about through poor judgment.

“The truth is, Mr. Levashov is not an evil person,” Glozman said.

Glozman said his client grew up in post-Communism Russia when opportunities were rare and in the 1990s when computer access was low and cybercrime law had not grown exponentially.

Since his arrest 4.5 years ago, Glozman continued, Levashov gained perspective on his life and the detention — the distance from his family compounded by the isolation of the pandemic — was a significant burden.

Speaking in English and wearing a pale blue T-shirt, Levashov called his attorney’s speech beautiful. He thanked his wife for her support and expressed gratitude to his attorney.

“Mr. Glozman said everything I want to say,” Levashov said.

At the end of the hearing, which ran for about two hours, Chatigny said the question before him was what sentence would be necessary to deter others. The judge believed it was unlikely Levashov would reoffend, as he had never been arrested before.

“You are a true first offender,” Chatigny said.

As part of Levashov’s sentence, Chatigny imposed three years’ supervised release. The judge deferred on ruling on restitution for 90 days, allowing Levashov’s attorney to submit a financial statement.

John Reid, a London-based researcher with The Spamhaus Project, said Levashov was a “player in the business.” Reid’s organization, which tracks and collects intelligence on spam, first identified him sometime around 2003.

Levashov’s Storm Worm botnet, Reid said, infected several million computers worldwide and had computing power that rivaled the U.S. Department of Energy’s Red Storm supercomputer, though Levashov’s network was used to generate spam and not simulate missile trajectories or trace the origins of ancient glass.

“Time served doesn’t make our researchers very happy — the amount of damage done, the millions of dollars and Euros cost by someone like this guy,” Reid said.

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Categories / Criminal, Technology

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