How Spain’s Fight Against Gangsters Revealed Russian Power Networks
Among the wealthy sophisticates who came and went from their seaside villas on the Spanish island of Mallorca, there was something that didn’t quite fit about the Russian who lived in a neoclassical mansion on the Avenida Portals Vells. Tall and powerfully built, with a flattened nose and graying, short-cropped hair, he looked more like an aging boxer than an international businessman. Most days, dressed in a t-shirt and sweat pants, he would drive over to a local marina in his older-model Mercedes — he saved the Bentley for rides with his wife — and stop in at a favorite restaurant. Taking a table by the water’s edge, he would order a tapa and watch the boats, murmuring into his cell phone in a hoarse, Slavic whisper.
 
It wasn’t long before police began to wonder about Gennady Petrov. He and his family were clearly Russian, but their passports were Greek. They seemed to have a lot of money, and to spend it in unusual ways. A real estate agent reported that Petrov had paid a contractor to build a tunnel down to the sea from another home he had owned in the area. Then there was an incident involving two Russians who were arrested as they prowled outside an upscale shopping center. The suspects wouldn’t talk, even after the police found a bomb in their car. But detectives eventually determined that the men were hoodlums who had flown in from Frankfurt to track another Russian — a businessman who was apparently involved in a dispute with Petrov.
 
The authorities soon discovered that Petrov was indeed a former boxer — and reputedly a high-ranking figure in one of Russia’s most powerful criminal organizations, the Tambovskaya. In Spain alone, he had amassed at least $50 million in properties and businesses. Beyond his island refuge, he was said to control a global network of legitimate and illicit activities, ranging from jewelry stores and extortion rings to the gray-market sale of Soviet MiG-29 fighter jets. But even the scope of Petrov’s enterprises did not prepare Spanish investigators for what they heard when they began to listen in on his telephone calls.
 
At one point, Petrov called a senior justice official in Moscow to complain that a Russian shipyard had fallen behind on construction of a new yacht Petrov had ordered. According to a confidential Spanish report of the conversation, the Russian official promised to go see the shipbuilder with some of “his boys,” and show him “a lot of affection.” Days later, another Spanish wiretap caught two of Petrov’s associates laughing about how agents of the Russian security forces had left the shipbuilder terrified. The yacht was back on schedule.
 
In hundreds of telephone calls intercepted during the year before Petrov’s arrest in 2008, Spanish investigators listened as the mob boss chatted with powerful businessmen, notorious criminals and high-level officials in the government of Vladimir Putin. During one trip to Russia, Petrov called his son to say he had just met with a man who turned out to be the Russian defense minister — and to report that they had sorted out a land deal, the sale of some airplanes, and a scheme to invest in Russian energy companies.
 
“Will you join the government?” a fellow mob boss joked with Petrov in another conversation monitored by Spanish investigators. “I bought a suitcase to store all the bribes you’ll get.” Petrov seemed to enjoy the irony, but said he was quite satisfied with Putin’s continued political control.
 
At a time when Russian intelligence and criminal activities have become an urgent concern in the United States and Europe, the Spanish investigations of Petrov and other Russians offer a remarkable view of the way that some of the most powerful mafia bosses have operated, both in Russia and abroad. Building on ties that sometimes date to the last years of the Soviet Union, more sophisticated mob leaders have survived gang wars and crackdowns to amass extraordinary wealth and influence, while remaining almost as deferential to Putin’s government as the oligarchs he helped create. Rather than simply bribing police officials to facilitate their activities, bosses like Petrov have established themselves as business partners, money launderers and investment scouts for high-ranking officials who have amassed sizeable fortunes themselves, Western security officials say. Those relationships, in turn, have enabled crime bosses to expand their involvement in legitimate business and political activities that are linked to the Russian government.
 
In isolated cases, the mafias are also believed to have been used as instruments of Russian state power — running guns for the security services, killing enemies, or carrying out political skullduggery. But the blurring lines between state and criminal activities have taken on new significance as Russia has worked more aggressively to undermine its adversaries in Europe and the United States. In Spain, such concerns have grown especially around the current crisis over the campaign for independence in Catalonia, where Russian news and social-media operations have lately been accused of spreading disinformation to stoke the separatist fervor. Russian mobsters have been active in the region for years, Spanish officials say, working to build influence among Catalan politicians and businesspeople, and to take advantage of the rivalry between Catalan and national law-enforcement agencies.
 
Interviews with more than 20 Western law-enforcement and intelligence officials — including Spanish investigators who spoke publicly and in detail about the Russian cases for the first time — as well as a review of thousands of pages of court files and investigative documents, show the interplay of gangsters, spies, magnates and politicians in Russian power networks at home and abroad. The mafias’ ties to the Russian government, and particularly to the security services, have led Spanish officials to fear for their national security as well as law and order. “If you are someone important in the mafia in Russia, you don’t work on your own,” said Juan Rueda, a former Spanish police commander who led many of the investigations. Another senior police official added, “There is always the shadow of intelligence services behind them.”
 
Over the past decade, Spain has cracked down more systematically than any other European government, jailing bosses and soldiers and confiscating tens of millions of dollars in cash and assets. Prosecutors have issued indictments or arrest warrants for high-level Russian government and business figures, and named others as suspected allies of organized crime. But the anti-mafia campaign has not always been successful. Many of the court cases have dragged on for years. Spectacular police operations have sometimes produced meager results. And the gangsters have not generally been cowed. “Neither you, nor your laws, are capable of fighting us,” one Maserati-driving boss, who was known as “the Beast,” snarled at the officers who arrested him…
 
 
 
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Cheap Tricks: The Low Cost of Internet Harassment
It was 10 a.m. on a hot, humid Tuesday in August when I decided I could finally relax. After a frantic weekend of finishing a big story — and typing so much that my forearms tingled — I needed to decompress.
I placed my phone on do not disturb, turned on my air conditioner and blissfully spent an hour contorting myself into various poses on the yoga mat next to my bed.
 
Precisely at 11 a.m., my yoga routine finished, I turned my phone back on to see a text message from my colleague Lauren Kirchner: “I am under some kind of email attack.”
I was chagrined but not surprised. Lauren had been harassed all weekend, a result of an article we had co-authored about companies such as PayPal, Newsmax and Amazon whose technologies enabled extremist websites to profit from their hateful views. Simply in the interest of journalistic fairness, Lauren had sought comment from about 70 websites designated as hateful by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
 
In return, her voicemail and her email inbox were filled with threats and insults. Her Twitter mentions were filled with people criticizing her appearance. Several of the sites she contacted posted negative articles about her, calling her a “fascist” and a “troll.” Alarmed, she had asked the security guards in our building to not let anyone into the office who asked for her.
But then I looked at my inbox and realized that something troubling was happening to me too: 360 emails had poured in while I was pretzeling myself. Every single one was a confirmation of a newsletter subscription or account sign-up from a website I’d never heard of.
 
“Thanks for signing up, here is your coupon!” an email from the Nature Hills Nursery said. “Please Confirm Subscription” Fintirement said. “Account details for xvwgnagycdm 1992 at ami-forum.org are pending admin approval,” a Montessori organization in Australia said.
 
“I am under some kind of email attack as well. Jesus,” I texted Lauren. Then I messaged my colleague Jeff Larson, who had shared a byline with Lauren and me on the article. His inbox was flooded too. Fortunately the inbox of our part-time colleague Madeleine Varner, who also had a byline but whose email address is not published on our website, was quiet.
 
As a reporter who has covered technology for more than two decades, I am familiar with the usual forms of internet harassment — gangs that bring down a website, haters who post your home address online, troll armies that hurl insults on a social network. But I’d never encountered this type of email onslaught before. I wasn’t sure what to do. “Hey Twitter — any advice on what to do when somebody malevolent signs you up for a thousand email subscriptions, making your email unusable?” I tweeted.
 
 
At first it seemed like a funny prank, like ordering pizza delivered to an ex-boyfriend’s house. “TBH [to be honest] it’s kind of a clever attack,” I tweeted again.
 
But as the emails continued to roll in, my sense of humor faded. By noon, the entire email system at our employer, ProPublica, was overwhelmed. Most of my colleagues could not send or receive messages because of the backlog of emails to Lauren, Jeff and me that were clogging the spam filters.
 
The tech team advised that it would likely have to block all incoming emails to our inboxes — bouncing them back to senders — to save the rest of the organization. A few hours later, when ProPublica pulled the plug on our email accounts, I realized that what our attackers did was no joking matter; they had cut off our most important avenue of communication with the world. “Preparing to say goodbye forever to my inbox,” I tweeted. “It does seem like killing a reporter’s email account is the definition of a chilling effect, no?”…
 
 
 
 
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So What the Hell Is Doxxing?
Remember Gamergate?
 
 
Or that man who was wrongly identified as the Boston Marathon bomber?
 
These were all examples of how making someone’s personal, and sometimes private, information public on the internet led to intense harassment.
 
Today, each of the cases could easily be termed a form of doxxing — short for “dropping documents.” In the last few years, doxxing has increasingly been used as an online weapon to attack people. People’s “documents” — records of their addresses, relatives, finances — get posted online with the implicit or explicit invitation for others to shame or hector them.
But while doxxing may seem both creepy and dangerous, there is no single federal law against the practice. Such behavior has to be part of a wider campaign of harassment or stalking for it to be against the law.
 
This week I wrote about “doxxing” among the more extreme elements of the country’s political left and right, a world of zealotry and paranoia and anger and worry. Over the course of my reporting, the subject of my article got doxxed herself.
 
It was all fascinating and disturbing, and I think leaves people, myself included, with a lot to think about concerning doxxing, its effectiveness and appropriateness both. Reporters, after all, have been doing a form of doxxing for decades.
 
But to hope of thinking clearly about doxxing, it always helps to better understand it and its practitioners.
So, how do doxxers dox? They use public records, like property records, tax documents, voter registration databases; they scour social media, real estate websites and even do real-life surveillance to gather information. Then, they publish the information online.
 
For some, doxxing is morally troubling. Law professor Danielle Citron is one. “It provides a permission structure to go outside the law and punish each other,” she says. “It’s like shaming in cyber-mobs.”
 
Then, there is the matter of doxxing the wrong person.
 
Here’s an example: After the infamous “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville, an attendee wearing an “Arkansas engineering” shirt was identified as Kyle Quinn, a professor at the University of Arkansas. Except Kyle Quinn wasn’t in Charlottesville. That didn’t stop the internet, and so when “Kyle Quinn” was doxxed as one of those torch — bearing protesters in Charlottesville, Quinn spent a weekend in hiding due to the amount of online abuse he subsequently received. The real protester, a former engineering student named Andrew M. Dodson, later apologized.
 
In some cases, people doxxed after taking part in white supremacist marches have been arrested, lost their jobs or allegedly been disowned by their families.
 
Other experts question whether doxxing white supremacists is a useful tactic. “Is this an effective means of challenging racist views?” ask Ajay Sandhu and Daniel Marciniak, researchers at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. They argue that doxxing simply isolates people, forcing them into smaller parts of the internet. “You don’t really challenge them, you allow them to exist in those isolated spaces,” Sandhu says.
 
Some tips on how to protect yourself from doxxing
 
The short answer is: You probably can’t fully. But we have a few tips that will help make the information you want kept private more secure.
 
Two-factor authentication
 
Two-factor authentication adds another level of security for online accounts. You should set this up for your social media, online banking, and any account connected to your credit cards (Venmo, PayPal, Amazon), and things with recurring payments that have credit card info like Netflix. For social media, here’s a how-to from Facebook on enabling two-factor authentication for your Facebook account, and here’s one from Twitter.
 
Increase privacy on your social media accounts
 
There may be, and probably is, personal information that is viewable by the public on your social media accounts. Or your social media accounts are completely public. It’s worth looking at the privacy of those. Here are a few things to do to button those up:
 
For Facebook, you can adjust your privacy settings here. Some boxes to check:
 
  • Set your profile so it can’t be searched. 
  • Set your friends list to private. 
  • Set any older content to private, which you can do in bulk. 
  • Set all past profile pictures to private.
 
Also helpful to reduce personal information in your public profile:
 
  • Remove your header image. 
  • Remove any featured photos. 
  • Consider removing your profile picture, or making sure it’s something professional/benign in case it gets copied and pasted elsewhere.
 
For the other accounts — Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Quora, etc. — here are some basic measures to take:
 
  • Check profile pictures and remove or update these images to make sure it’s something professional/benign in case it gets copied and pasted elsewhere. 
  • Check who can follow you and/or see your posts. 
  • Check account security settings; like Facebook, each platform has privacy/security settings. 
  • Consider making Instagram feeds private, as even un-geotagged photos can provide a lot of useful location information.
 
How strong are your passwords?
 
Computer-generated passwords are best. Services like 1Password can help you create strong passwords. Some accounts will show you if your password is strong or weak. If it’s “weak,” don’t use it. Here are some more detailed practices for creating strong passwords.
 
Protect your email accounts
 
Where is your email address located out on the internet? Do you want it there? If not, remove your personal email address from personal websites, social media accounts or wherever else it might be.
 
Remove yourself from people search sites
 
Here’s how to remove yourself from many popular people search sites. These sites can reveal relatives, phone numbers, addresses (old and new), etc., that can be used by angry internet trolls to harass you and your family. Some of these sites are more obnoxious than others to opt out of, but if you go through all of them, it will take you out of most of the common online search services. Also, never provide sensitive information like your credit card number or Social Security number while opting out. Each of the links below will take you to the current opt-out page or instructions on how to opt out:
 
  • PeopleFinders: Search yourself in any states you’ve lived in and click “This is me” to have it removed. 
  • Intelius: You need to scan your ID and scratch out your photo and DL number. Within a few days, they should remove you. 
  • Whitepages (non-Premium): Search your name on whitepages.com and copy the URL. Then go to the address linked here and paste it in. You’ll need to give them a phone number and then they call and read you a code. 
  • Whitepages Premium: Frustratingly, Whitepages Premium results will still show up for you if you remove yourself from whitepages.com. You’ll need to file a ticket with their support staff, but in our experience they’re pretty quick to remove you. Just search for your name in Whitepages Premium, copy the link, and fill out this form
  • Spokeo: Much like whitepages.com, search yourself on Spokeo and copy the profile URL. Then paste it into the opt-out form here
  • BeenVerified: This site is very particular about the spelling and form of names. For example, a search result came up for Kenneth Schwencke but not Ken Schwencke. But once you’ve located your name, or versions of your name, opt out here
 
Other sites: Once you've scrubbed the above listings, it's a good idea to Google your name and the words “address” or “phone number” and see what comes up. If something does, find a way to manually opt out of each one of those sites.
 
Worth remembering here: Due to the nature of these services, your name might pop back up on them again. It’s worth it to re-check every few months to see if you’re still listed.
 
A step further: Data brokers
 
The sites above often get your information from data brokers. To ensure that your data doesn’t pop back up in other types of “PeopleFinders,” you have to go directly to the data brokers. This, however, can take time and sometimes be complicated. Here’s a list of some of the biggest data brokers and their opt-out pages:
 
 
A note on voter files
 
Voter files are public records in nearly every state, but some states block the release of information for certain people. For example, Florida conceals voter registration information for individuals participating in the state’s Address Confidentiality Program for victims of domestic violence and stalking. It’s worth checking with your local or state election authority to see how your state operates.
 
If you want more, here are some guides we are particularly fond of:
 
 
Tips and advice compiled by: Mike Tigas, Ken Schwencke, Jeff Larson, Derek Willis, Julia Angwin and Terry Parris Jr.
 
 
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