SERGEY GORBUNOV, LEADER OF ONE OF LARGEST GROUPS OF RUSSIAN DATING SCAMMERS, ARRESTED IN YOSHKAR-OLA
by Elena Garrett
October 25, 2009
Several Russian media sources have reported that the Mari El Republic branch of the Federal Security Service of Russian Federation (UFSB RF of Mari El Republic) has identified and apprehended 'the boss' of one of larger dating-scam groups in Mari El Republic.
According to the official sources cited by Russian news organizations KomiNarod, MariEl MK, and Federal News Information Center, the arrest of Sergey Gorbunov, a 43 years old Yoshkar-Ola businessman, was the culmination of an extensive investigation that some news media have called 'unprecedented' in its scope.
In July of 2006, the Mari El UFSB began looking into the activities of what they believed to be an organized Internet scam group. Their investigation quickly revealed a large-scale online dating scam operation. After the group was placed under surveillance, law enforcement agents uncovered that the group was renting almost a dozen apartments in Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of Mari El Republic, and in Medvedevo, a suburb of Yoshkar-Ola.
In September of 2006, the Mari El police were ready to make their move. They coordinated a sequence of near-simultaneous raids on 10 of the apartments that were believed to be used by the group. Russian TV channel 'Russia' did a special on Mari El scammers ('Black Brides' episode of a popular program 'Honest Detective' by Eduard Petrov). In the program, some of the official police footage of the arrest and interrogations was shown to the public.
For example, the official footage shows police officers forcing their way into the apartments used by the scammers through balconies and windows. The footage made inside the apartments allows a rare glimpse at the office-like environment of those scam mini-factories: rows of computers are set up on cheap tables, food and drinks are sitting open next to the keyboards, notebooks for record keeping and cell phones are laying around.
As a result of the raids, over 100 people, mostly young males ages 18 to 35, were placed under arrest, and about 50 computers and many of the financial records were seized.
Most of the scammers arrested that day turned out to be in the lower chain of command, and not exactly the hardened criminals most people would imagine. Primarily students from local colleges and universities, their job was the daily task of correspondence with numerous prospective victims. Their work schedule was arranged in 8 hour shifts with 3 shifts per day, and the 'writing workhorses' of this scam group were receiving on average 10-15% of the money taken in, or about $500-$800 per month. Few denied their involvement in the scam, and most agreed to cooperate with police.
The records seized during the raid showed that the group had been operating since 2003 or 2004, and by the time of the raid the total average monthly income of the group approached $300,000. The approximate count of all the group's participants was around 500 people.
Several of the group's 'managers' were arrested that day, as well. Although still young, most in their mid to late 20s, the 'managers' were more likely to have prior criminal histories. But none of the arrestees could be identified as the group's top leader. Thus, the investigators started a long process of sifting through clues in order to get an idea of who the invisible hand behind the group's activities might be. All of the arrestees were questioned and released, but surveillance of the group members continued.
Not long after the raid, the group started to show signs of activity again. New apartments were rented, new computer equipment was bought, and some of the old 'employees' returned to work. The authorities had little choice but to halt the group's work once again. In July of 2007, less than 10 months after the first raid, a second raid was conducted. This time the sanctions for group participants were more severe, and those who were identified as key members of the group were placed in pre-trial detention. But even the second raid provided few additional clues as to the identity of the group's mastermind.
It was almost a year after that second raid before police investigators were able to piece together enough clues to identify the main beneficiary of the funds that the group had collected from unsuspecting foreigners over the years.
In August of 2008, authorities finally filed charges against the person believed to be the mastermind behind the operation of the group: Sergey Gorbunov, a local resident who officially had no other source of income but his job as an assistant director of 'PolymerSythez,' a small manufacturing company based in Yoshkar-Ola. It is not clear whether Sergey Gorbunov actually performed any official duties at 'PolymerSythez.' The investigators believe that his work for the company might have been used primarily to justify his significant income. According to Mari El MK, at the time of the arrest Sergey Gorbunov was the owner of two luxury cars, complete with a personal driver, and of an apartment in one of the most prestigious residential developments of Kazan, a large and prosperous city not far from Yoshkar-Ola, with a view on the Kremlin of the Tatarstan Republic. His elderly mother owned three real estate properties in Yoshkar-Ola, as well.
Gorbunov was charged with fraud under Section 4 Article 159 of the Criminal Code of Russian Federation (Major Fraud - fraud performed by an organized criminal group or fraud involving an especially large amount of money), which carries a penalty of 5 to 10 years of incarceration plus fines. In the case against Gorbunov and his group members, authorities allege 750 victims and over 2 million dollars worth of profit. The municipal court of Yoshkar-Ola issued a warrant for his arrest, and he was placed in pre-trial detention. According to official sources, Gorbunov insists he is innocent. At this time it is not known whether he has a lawyer.
While looking for evidence of his role in the criminal group, in March of 2009 police investigators unexpectedly came upon a number of weapons. Some were buried in a field near the village Velikopolie in Mari El and others hidden in garages in Yoshkar-Ola. The seized weapons included handguns and hand grenades, and a search of one of the apartments owned by Gorbunov's mother turned up some large-caliber ammunition. A new criminal case was opened to determine whether police can tie Gorbunov to the seized weapons. Additional charges against Sergey Gorbunov are likely.
Elena Garrett will continue to report on further developments in this case.
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