Image: Thailand-ukraine-us
Maksym Kovalchuk, left, is shown after his arrest in Bangkok on May 20.
By Mike Brunker Projects Team editor
msnbc.com
updated 3/23/2004 4:44:14 PM ET 2004-03-23T21:44:14

U.S. authorities are trying to reel in a rare fish — an alleged software pirate from the former Soviet Union who may be one of the biggest catches so far in the war on cybercrime. But instead of trumpeting the arrest of Maksym Kovalchuk, investigators and prosecutors have cast a net of secrecy around the case and their efforts to extradite the 25-year-old Ukrainian from Thailand.

Though Kovalchuk was described as a “kingpin” of international computer crime at the time of his arrest, many details of the case against him remain unclear more than four months after he was apprehended by Thai authorities as he was downloading a frozen treat in a Bangkok ice cream parlor.

Kovalchuk’s arrest on an international warrant obtained by U.S. authorities was the result of a criminal complaint filed in Northern California. But that complaint remains sealed, and officials with the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Jose declined to discuss the case in response to interview requests from MSNBC.com.

One reason for the low-key approach is that U.S. authorities apparently hope to use Kovalchuk’s arrest to further penetrate the shadowy world of software piracy in Ukraine — a global hot spot for intellectual property theft, much of it orchestrated by organized crime syndicates.

‘OTHER SUSPECTS’ SOUGHT

“His extradition is still pending, and there are other suspects in the case, so we really can’t say anything at this point,” said a U.S. Secret Service spokeswoman.

A Thai court may rule as early as Wednesday on a U.S. extradition request for Kovalchuk. If it turns him over, Kovalchuk apparently would be the first person from Ukraine — and possibly any of the former Soviet Union countries — to stand trial in the United States on software piracy charges.

Most of what is known about the case is contained in a May 21 press release announcing Kovalchuk’s arrest issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of California on May 21.

In it, authorities said that Kovalchuk had been charged with criminal copyright infringement, trafficking in counterfeit goods, money laundering and possession of unauthorized credit card information.

The Ukrainian sold counterfeit versions of software from companies such as Autodesk, Macromedia and Microsoft on eBay and other Web sites and laundered the proceeds through numerous intermediaries in an effort to disguise its destination, according to the press release. It said the software had a retail value “in excess of $3 million.”

A BIGGER PLAYER?

But there have been tantalizing hints in foreign media reports that Kovalchuk may have been a bigger player in the rough-and-tumble world of Ukrainian computer crime than U.S. authorities have let on:

The Ukrainian UNIAN news agency reported shortly after the arrest that he is accused of causing $100 million in damage without specifying how that figure was arrived at, and said he was accused of carrying out computer crimes against U.S. banks, specifically forging credit cards.

Agence France Presse, which quoted an unidentified official at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok as describing Kovalchuk as a criminal “kingpin,” reported that the suspected software pirate also apparently was a hacker who built a “back door” in the counterfeit software that enabled him to surreptitiously gain access to purchasers’ computers and steal financial data.

Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency reported that Kovalchuk was somehow able to obtain a passport identifying him as Maksym Vysochansky shortly before traveling to Thailand on vacation with his wife.

The Secret Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Jose declined comment on the reports.

Little is known about Kovalchuk, who reportedly is claiming that U.S. authorities have the wrong man while fighting extradition.

ITAR-Tass reported that he grew up with three siblings in a modest, two-room apartment in Ternopil in western Ukraine. His mother, an employee at a local museum, and father, a locally renowned painter, still live in the apartment, with their sole visible asset a large library, the news agency said. His parents refused to discuss their son’s arrest.

The news agency said that friends and former teachers at the Institute of Economics and Management of the Economics Academy, from which he graduated with honors in 1998, recalled him as modest and “unconflicting.”

EXTRADITION SEEN AS LIKELY

Assuming they have solid evidence linking Kovalchuk to the counterfeit software, U.S. authorities have a good chance of bringing the suspect to the United States to stand trial, said Douglas McNabb, a Houston-based criminal defense attorney who specializes in extradition cases.

“The treaty requires that there be dual criminality, where you’ve got a crime in both countries that is analogous to a felony,” he said. “…I’d be very surprised if Thailand doesn’t have a money-laundering statute at least that corresponds closely to U.S. law.”

No matter what the outcome, Kovalchuk’s case illustrates that the United States is getting serious about going after thieves and hackers in countries with spotty or nonexistent enforcement records and is garnering increasing cooperation even in countries where such criminals have long been untouchable.

In Kovalchuk’s case, for example, U.S authorities were able to identify the suspect while he was in Ukraine and then place him on an international watch list in the event he left the country. When he did, they quickly orchestrated his arrest, even though he was traveling under a different name.

Sandy Boulton, director of piracy prevention for Autodesk, said that after investigators at the company documented multiple sales of its AutoCad design software on eBay and other Web sites for about one-eighth of its usual retail price of $4,000, federal agents “followed the money” to its source to identify Kovalchuk.

“It took some time to track because he set up some rather clever ways to divert the cash,” she said.

GOVERNMENT PROMISES CRACKDOWN

Vladimir Golubev, director of the Computer Crime Research Center in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, also said there is evidence that the Ukrainian government is getting serious about cracking down on the various forms of computer crime that are rife within the Eastern European nation’s borders.

InsertArt(2028158)“The Ukrainian government has passed … changes in (the) National Security Strategy, where computer crime and cyberterrorism were defined as priorities,” he wrote in an e-mail response to an inquiry. “And (the) Security Service of Ukraine is charged to investigate computer crimes and cyberterrorism.”

But Ukrainian leaders need to do far more to combat copyright infringement and counterfeiting, said Eric Schwartz, vice president and special counsel of the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA), which represents more than 1,300 companies.

“The Ukrainian police began making raids (on piracy operations) two years ago, but few prosecutions resulted and in the few cases where there were convictions, they were overturned on technicalities or very meager administrative penalties were assessed,” he said.

The Business Software Alliance, another industry group, estimated that losses to U.S. companies due to software piracy in Ukraine amounted to $75.4 million in 2002.

The long-running dispute over the lax enforcement of intellectual property laws by Ukrainian authorities culminated with the imposition of trade sanctions by the United States on Dec. 20, 2001, specifically over the inability of President Leonid Kuchma’s government to crack down on a thriving market in counterfeit optical disks.

The sanctions cost the country $40 million a year in trade benefits and also resulted in tariffs against other goods and services.

The main obstacle to substantive reform and vigorous enforcement of intellectual property laws is organized crime, which is responsible for much of the counterfeiting and intellectual property theft in Ukraine, according to sources familiar with the situation.

‘MOST LUCRATIVE INCOME SOURCE’

“They’re involved in all sort of other operations, but their most lucrative income source — and the one they’re least likely to be prosecuted for — is intellectual property crime,” said one source.

In addition to levying punishing sanctions against Ukraine and other nations that fail to crack down on counterfeiting and copyright infringement, U.S. and European leaders are trying to persuade governments that intellectual property laws offer an effective way of cracking down on organized crime.

“It’s like Al Capone and taxes,” said the IIPA’s Schwarz. “You may not get them running guns or drugs, but you can get them selling materials illegally that come with forensic evidence … that you can trace back to the master replicator at the plant.”

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