Russian Man Charged With Fraud in Plot to Influence Election

A voter drops off their mail-in ballot in Willow Grove, Pa., in May. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

(CN) — A member of a Russian-based political operation was charged with wire fraud and conspiracy Thursday, accused of stealing American citizens’ identities to open fraudulent accounts as part of a scheme to influence the presidential election.

Artem Mikhaylovich Lifshits, 27, is one of many Russians allegedly operating through Project Lakhta — a  group that has been operating since 2014 to “spread distrust towards candidates for political office and the political system in general” in the United States, according to Lifshits’ criminal complaint filed in Alexandra, Virginia, federal court.

Those disinformation efforts have largely been carried out through various social media platforms, focusing on racial divisions and inequality in the U.S.

That conduct was shielded through the operation of multiple businesses that all together employed hundreds of people, the complaint states. Project Lakhta’s estimated annual budget is in the millions of dollars.

“The evidence…establishes that Lifshits was a manager in a unit responsible for much of Project Lakhta’s influence operations and that these operations are ongoing,” the complaint states. “The evidence also establishes that Lifshits operated cryptocurrency accounts opened in the name of United States identity theft victims for personal gain.”

The alleged plot involved using stolen identities to open American bank accounts, which Lifshits then used to send himself Bitcoin — a type of digital currency generated through computer-solved math problems. Those accounts were then used to “promote Project Lakhta’s influence operations and for personal enrichment,” according to a Justice Department news release.  

“Project Lakhta conspirators used the stolen identities of U.S. persons to further their goals of undermining faith in our democratic institutions and for personal gain,” Eastern Virginia U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger said in a statement. “This case demonstrates that federal law enforcement will work aggressively to investigate and hold accountable cyber criminals located in Russia and other countries, which serve as safe-havens for this type of criminal activity.”

Prosecutors say Project Lakhta members are also associated with the Internet Research Agency, accused by special counsel Robert Mueller of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

Lifshits is billed as the operation’s “task manager,” with a monthly salary of 70,000 rubles, or a little over $931. He worked in Project Lakhta’s Translator Department and would have been directly involved with crafting social media messages and other communication meant to influence the American political process, the complaint states.

Lifshifts was also sanctioned by the Treasury Department on Thursday, along with three other Russian-linked individuals for trying to influence the 2020 election. The others that were sanctioned are Anton Andreyev Darya Aslanova and Andrii Derkach, a member of the Ukrainian parliament.

The Treasury Department claims that since at least late last year, Derkach was engaged in a covert campaign focused on cultivating unsubstantiated narratives about U.S. officials. He also allegedly tried to jump-start corruption investigations in the U.S. and in Ukraine.

“Today’s designation of Derkach is focused on exposing Russian malign influence campaigns and protecting our upcoming elections from foreign interference,” the department said.

Tech giant Microsoft also said Thursday that the same Russian military officers that hacked the Democratic National Committee’s computers four years ago have made more than 200 similar attempted intrusions this year.

“The majority of these attacks were detected and stopped by security tools built into our products. We have directly notified those who were targeted or compromised so they can take action to protect themselves,” Vice President Tom Burt wrote. “What we’ve seen is consistent with previous attack patterns that not only target candidates and campaign staffers but also those they consult on key issues.”

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