A Russian computer hacker who facilitated $20 million in credit card fraud and ran a sophisticated clearinghouse for international cybercriminals was sentenced Friday to nine years in prison.
Prosecutors say Aleksey Burkov of St. Petersburg, Russia, filled a unique niche in the world of cybercrime, describing his Direct Connection website as “the most exclusive criminal forum on the web.” Would-be participants had to put up a $5,000 bond and have three existing members vouch for them. Once inside, members could buy and sell stolen credit-card numbers, hacking services and malware, and criminals with different skill sets could join forces to launch schemes.
“You’ve made it as a criminal once you get on Direct Connection because you have access to the best criminals in the world,” prosecutor Kellen Dwyer said at Friday’s sentencing hearing.
The website — which ran from 2009 until 2015, when Burkov was arrested — even had an arbitration feature to mediate disputes between members who conducted transactions on the site.
A second website, Card Planet, offered stolen credit-card numbers for sale from anywhere from $3 to $60, according to court records. More than 150, 000 numbers were offered for sale, mostly stolen from US financial institutions. The site even offered money-back guarantees if a stolen number didn’t work.
The charges against Burkov were filed in 2015. He was then arrested in Israel and spent several years in custody there while the Russian government fought extradition and filed its own extradition request. He did not arrive in the US until November 2019.
The 9-year sentence was less than the 15-year maximum sought by prosecutors. He will also get credit for the 4 1/2 years he has served while awaiting sentencing. With credit for good behavior, he could be out of prison in roughly three years.
Defense lawyers asked for a seven-year sentence.
Israeli officials have suggested Russia sought Burkov’s release by offering an exchange for Naama Issachar, a 26-year-old Israeli woman who received a seven-year prison sentence in Moscow on marijuana charges. She was released in January after serving 10 months, receiving a pardon from Russian President Vladimir Putin roughly a week after Burkov pleaded guilty in the US.
It is unclear whether Russia will continue to agitate for Burkov’s release. Judge T.S. Ellis III ordered that Burkov serve his sentence near the D.C. area to facilitate future discussions with his attorney that might be necessary “for reasons I don’t think need to be explained.” Burkov’s lawyer, Gregory Stambaugh, who requested that Burkov remain in the area, declined comment on whether Burkov could possibly be a part of some sort of prisoner swap.
In court, Burkov apologized for his conduct.
“I recognize my guilt and I reconsider my life,” he said through an interpreter.