Yoshkar-Ola “Sparta” Scam Group Disbanded, Leaders Prosecuted
By Elena Garrett
August 8th, 2011
Yoshkar-Ola Municipal Court announced guilty verdicts in the case against two leaders of Yoshkar-Ola an Internet scam group "Sparta," a criminal organization which distinguished itself by involving local underage teenagers in the commission of crimes against foreign citizens.
According to the prosecutor, Ruslan Ivanov, local police first learned about the group when concerned parents of some of the teenagers contacted them, alleging that their children have been forced to take part in online criminal activities against their will. The parents themselves initially became alarmed when they started to observe their teenage sons acting depressed, secretive, and seemingly frightened to go to school or go outside at all. They also started to notice periodically appearing bruises and black eyes (1). When the parents confronted their children about the reasons, they were shocked to hear the truth.
The teenage slaves
The teenagers (usually ages 14 to 15) revealed that they have been recruited into a large group of Internet scammers to impersonate lonely Russian females and to write passionate love letters to unsuspecting foreigners. The teenagers were usually persuaded to join group because of the promised potential to make extra income while becoming more proficient with using computers and Internet (2). The “recruiters” promised them 20% of the money that the love-struck foreigners would send to their preudo-girlfriends. However, upon joining the group, the youngsters found themselves to be subjected to severe discipline and insatiable demands of the leaders of the group. The leaders required them to work long hours, to correspond with at least 50 foreigners per day, and to be successful in soliciting money under numerous pretenses. Those workers, who failed to bring in a certain “minimum” amount of solicited money into the group at the end of the month were told, that they “owned” the money to the group leaders and had to repay their “debt” or face physical disciplinary actions such as beatings performed in front of other group members. (1).
Most of the underage workers, once they gotten a taste of the realities of scammer life, decided to sever their ties with the group. And it was then when they learned that there was another part of the “job contract” that the “recruiters” withheld from them – once they joined, they were not free to leave. In order to be allowed to leave, they had to make a payoff, five thousand dollars in cash. But that was not all. They also had to find two people who would agree to join the group to replace them - and to train their “replacements” at their own time and expense (1).
Some of the abused teenagers attempted to leave the group simply by carefully avoiding their group-fellows, but in vain. The discipline enforcers would not hesitate to track them down leaving for school or coming home from classes. Some teenagers found that their only way out of this involuntary involvement was to avoid leaving the safety of their homes altogether. That is when the parents noticed their strange behavior and alerted law enforcement (citation needed). The teenagers were terrified to talk to law enforcement – they anticipated a severe reprisal from their leader (citation needed). Of over 50 teenagers whom law enforcement identified as victims of this “forced labor”, only four agreed to bring charges against the group (2).
“Sparta” group and its leaders
Yoshkar-Ola police started to investigate the parents’ complaints and their investigation confirmed the existence of a large criminal organization (citation needed). The teenage participants were working on set schedules from several “offices” – rental apartments that were used as miniature “scam factories,” equipped with ready-to-go computer stations. The group was so large that it had several sub-divisions: “Vostochka,” “Vasilievskie,” “Podolskie,” “Kirpichka,” and others (1). At the helm of the group was a 30-years old unemployed resident of the city Mikhail Konovalov. His right-hand man was a 20-years old Ruslan Tukhvatullin, another supposedly unemployed resident of Yoshkar-Ola (citation needed). Together, they started their “business” in 2008, recruiting a number of high school students. Eventually, the group grew. At the helm of its power, almost all high schools in the city became the group’s recruiting grounds.
Mr. Konovalov and Mr. Tukhvatullin provided worker training and enforced discipline within the group. They would methodically check everyone’s work records of the group to locate and punish those who did not manage to make the daily or monthly quotas. They would also provide detailed plans for dealing with legal emergencies, like a police raid on the apartment. They would instruct the young workers exactly on what evidence to destroy on the computer hard drives, what to say to police, or to parents, if the need arose (1). These discipline enforcers were uniformly feared. When police started to investigate the case, potential witnesses and victims agreed to give statements to the police only after a judge ordered to detain the leaders for the duration of the investigation. However, they were later released on bail anyway (1).
Arrests and convictions
Using the information that they received, the local law enforcement conducted a raid on the group’s “offices.” Group members who were present at the time of the raid were able to destroy the contents of the computers from which the correspondence with foreigners was conducted, so law enforcement investigators lost a lot of evidence of criminal activity against the group. In the end, the case against the group’s leaders, Mikhail Konovalov and Ruslan Tukhvatulling, hinged on cooperation by four teenagers who agreed to testify against their ex-leaders (2). Both Konovalov and Tukhvatullin were officially charged with an attempt to involve a minor in illegal activities (3).
Mr. Konovalov was detained for part of the duration of the investigation, but eventually he was released on 1 million rubles bail (approximately 36 thousand dollars). This supposedly unemployed resident of the city turned out to have no shortage of cash or collateral. He and his (unemployed) wife owned an expensive SUV, Audi-Q7, valued at 2 million rubles (approximately 72 thousand dollars) (3) - a rather upscale car in this small town. He denied all accusations against him. Both he and Mr. Tukhvatullin plead not guilty to charges against him.
The trial was conducted in February of 2011 – more than , the court found Mikhail Konovalov guilty of an attempt to engage a minor in a criminal activity. He was sentenced to a period of incarceration in a minimum-security penal colony for 1 year and 2 months. Ruslan Tukhvatullin was found guilty of an attempt to engage a minor in a criminal activity and of physical abuse of minors. He was also sentenced for a period of incarceration in a minimum-security penal colony for 1 year and 2 months (3). Ruslan Tukhvatullin was also sentenced for a period of incarceration in a minimum-security penal colony for 1 year and 2 months.
(1) Москвина, Ирина. ""Спарта" и ее невольники." Марийская Правда 25 Feb. 2011. Web. 5 July 2011. <http://www.marpravda.ru/news/assosiations/2011/02/25/sparta-i-ee/?print>.
(2) Разумихин, Иван. "Бракоразводка." Журнал "Огонек" 16.517525 Apr. (2011). Web. 3 July 2011. <http://mvd.gov12.ru/pressclub-print.htm?ownrubric_id=1&news_id=518&>.