Roman Seleznev, the son of a prominent Russian lawmaker, was convicted last year of stealing millions of credit-card numbers from U.S. businesses, including restaurants in Washington state.
In Russian cybercrime mastermind Roman Seleznev, the Department of Justice is boasting it finally caught and convicted a big fish in the often impenetrable world of global computer theft — and now the agency intends to make a lesson of him.
Federal prosecutors will ask a Seattle judge Friday to sentence the 32-year-old Seleznev to 30 years in prison for operating a massive — maybe unprecedented — credit-card theft scheme from behind keyboards in Vladivostok, Russia, and Bali, Indonesia. Over a decade, Seleznev stole and sold on the black market more than 2 million credit-card numbers, resulting in losses of at least $170 million, and maybe into the billions, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
“Never before has a criminal engaged in computer fraud of this magnitude been identified, captured and convicted by an American jury,” prosecutors wrote.
Update: Seleznev was sentenced to 27 years. Read the story.
Seleznev, in an 11-page handwritten letter to U.S. District Judge Richard Jones, admits it all, saying he turned his considerable computer skills to crime out of desperation after he found himself alone on the streets of Vladivostok after his mother, divorced from his Russian politician father, died from alcoholism at age 40.
Seleznev wrote that he found her dead in the bathtub of their tiny flat, which was shared with four other families. After that, he was on the streets.
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“I was 17, struggle hard, and lose my way into bad world,” he wrote.
The prosecution of Seleznev has proved as epic as his crimes. According to federal sentencing documents, he first appeared on federal law-enforcement radar screens in 2005 as the hacker “nCuX,” a translation of the Russian word for “psycho.”
By 2009, Seleznev had “become one of the world’s leading providers of stolen credit card data,” prosecutors wrote.
During this time, prosecutors say, agents learned the identity of Seleznev, the son of Valery Seleznev, a member of the Duma, Russia’s parliament. Prosecutors contend the senior Seleznev has tried to protect his son.
In May 2009, according to the sentencing documents, agents with the FBI and Secret Service met with members of the Russian Federal Security Service in Moscow and presented evidence of Roman Seleznev’s crimes.
“The agents’ attempt at international coordination backfired,” prosecutors wrote. “Shortly after that, nCuX completely disappeared from the internet.”
Rather than going out of business, however, prosecutors say Seleznev reappeared in Indonesia using new identities — “Track2” and “Bulba” — and employed new innovations that “took his carding enterprise to the next level.”
On a single day in April 2011, according to the Secret Service, he posted 1 million stolen credit-card numbers for sale.
He was living a lavish lifestyle, according to the documents. Prosecutors have released photographs of him with stacks of cash, and he was known to purchase American muscle cars and race them through the streets of Moscow. Prosecutors say he made at least $17 million between 2009 and 2011, and probably much more.
In April 2011, Seleznev traveled with his wife to Marrakech, Morocco, to “reunite” with his father, according to documents filed by his attorney. He was in a cafe when a suicide bomber struck, killing 27 people and leaving Seleznev nearly dead with a severe head injury that plagues him to this day. Seleznev’s scalp is crisscrossed with scars.
Seleznev, in a coma, was flown to Moscow, where he said his wife left with his child after being told he would likely never recover. He was hospitalized until 2012. In 2013, he started hacking again using a new identity, “2Pac.”
“My life was terrible and I hated the man I see when I look in the mirror. I ask God why he save me. Why?” Seleznev wrote.
Around the same time, a federal grand jury in Seattle handed up a sealed indictment naming Seleznev in more than 30 computer-fraud-related counts. Many of the businesses he was accused of hacking were in Washington state, including the former Broadway Grill on Capitol Hill, Grand Central Bakery, Mad Pizza locations in Seattle and Tukwila, Village Pizza in Anacortes and the Casa Mia Italian Restaurant in Yelm, Thurston County.
Agents were unable to arrest him, however, because he avoided traveling to countries that have extradition treaties with the U.S.
In June 2014, agents learned that Seleznev intended to travel to the tropical island country of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.
While the U.S. did not have a treaty with the Maldives, officials there agreed to let U.S. agents arrest Seleznev. He was taken into custody at the airport without incident, despite official protests from Russian authorities that he was kidnapped.
In Seattle, his prosecution has maintained its drama over the past three years. Seleznev accused government agents of misconduct and burned through six sets of attorneys in the case. Prosecutors at one point were concerned that he and his father were plotting an escape from the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac.
They discount Seleznev’s “newfound perspective on his misconduct as entirely opportunistic,” given his pretrial conduct.
Seleznev was convicted last August following a nine-day jury trial on 38 computer-fraud-related charges. Given the number of victims and the amount of losses, the federal sentencing guidelines — which must be considered by a judge but not necessarily followed — conclude Seleznev should go to prison for life.
Prosecutors acknowledge that their 30-year recommendation is a “significant variance” from the sentence called for by the guidelines, but that a longer term would not be justified.
Seleznev faces additional prosecutions in Nevada and Florida.
Seleznev, in his letter, says he was grateful to be caught and was deeply apologetic.
“I am alive today and I thank God and the United States of American Government,” he wrote. “I was going down a very deadly road before my arrest.”