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Companies Linked to Russian Ransomware Hide in Plain Sight

Jacob Scott

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MOSCOW — When cybersleuths traced the millions of dollars American companies, hospitals and city governments have paid to online extortionists in ransom money, they made a telling discovery: At least some of it passed through one of the most prestigious business addresses in Moscow.

The Biden administration has also zeroed in on the building, Federation Tower East, the tallest skyscraper in the Russian capital. The United States has targeted several companies in the tower as it seeks to penalize Russian ransomware gangs, which encrypt their victims’ digital data and then demand payments to unscramble it.

Those payments are typically made in cryptocurrencies, virtual currencies like Bitcoin, which the gangs then need to convert to standard currencies, like dollars, euros and rubles.

That this high-rise in Moscow’s financial district has emerged as an apparent hub of such money laundering has convinced many security experts that the Russian authorities tolerate ransomware operators. The targets are almost exclusively outside Russia, they point out, and in at least one case documented in a U.S. sanctions announcement, the suspect was assisting a Russian espionage agency.

“It says a lot,” said Dmitri Smilyanets, a threat intelligence expert with the Massachusetts-based cybersecurity firm Recorded Future. “Russian law enforcement usually has an answer: ‘There is no case open in Russian jurisdiction. There are no victims. How do you expect us to prosecute these honorable people?’”

Recorded Future has counted about 50 cryptocurrency exchanges in Moscow City, a financial district in the capital, that in its assessment are engaged in illicit activity. Other exchanges in the district are not suspected of accepting cryptocurrencies linked to crime.

Cybercrime is just one of many issues fueling tensions between Russia and the United States, along with the Russian military buildup near Ukraine and a recent migrant crisis on the Belarus-Polish border.

The Treasury Department has estimated that Americans have paid $1.6 billion in ransoms since 2011. One Russian ransomware strain, Ryuk, made an estimated $162 million last year encrypting the computer systems of American hospitals during the pandemic and demanding fees to release the data, according to Chainalysis, a company tracking cryptocurrency transactions.

The hospital attacks cast a spotlight on the rapidly expanding criminal industry of ransomware, which is based primarily in Russia. Criminal syndicates have become more efficient, and brazen, in what has become a conveyor-belt-like process of hacking, encrypting and then negotiating for ransom in cryptocurrencies, which can be owned anonymously.

At a summit meeting in June, President Biden pressed President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to crack down on ransomware after a Russian gang, DarkSide, attacked a major gasoline pipeline on the East Coast, Colonial Pipeline, disrupting supplies and creating lines at gas stations.

American officials point to people like Maksim Yakubets, a skinny 34-year-old with a pompadour haircut whom the United States has identified as a kingpin of a major cybercrime operation calling itself Evil Corp. Cybersecurity analysts have linked his group to a series of ransomware attacks, including one last year targeting the National Rifle Association. A U.S. sanctions announcement accused Mr. Yakubets of also assisting Russia’s Federal Security Service, the main successor to the K.G.B.

But after the State Department announced a $5 million bounty for information leading to his arrest, Mr. Yakubets seemed only to flaunt his impunity in Russia: He was photographed driving in Moscow in a Lamborghini partially painted fluorescent yellow.

The cluster of suspected cryptocurrency exchanges in Federation Tower East, first reported last month by Bloomberg News, further illustrates how the Russian ransomware industry hides in plain sight.

The 97-floor, glass-and-steel high-rise resting on a bend in the Moscow River stands within sight of several government ministries in the financial district, including the Russian Ministry of Digital Development, Signals and Mass Communications.

Maksim Yakubets, right, who is accused of helping lead a cybercrime group called Evil Corp, next to his Lamborghini in Moscow.Credit…Courtesy of the UK National Crime Agency

Two of the Biden administration’s most forceful actions to date targeting ransomware are linked to the tower. In September, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a cryptocurrency exchange called Suex, which has offices on the 31st floor. It accused the company of laundering $160 million in illicit funds.

In an interview at the time, a founder of Suex, Vasily Zhabykin, denied any illegal activity.

And last month, Russian news media outlets reported that Dutch police, using a U.S. extradition warrant, had detained the owner, Denis Dubnikov, of another firm called EggChange, with an office on the 22nd floor. In a statement issued by one of his companies, Mr. Dubnikov denied any wrongdoing.

Ransomware is attractive to criminals, cybersecurity experts say, because the attacks take place mostly anonymously and online, minimizing the chances of getting caught. It has mushroomed into a sprawling, highly compartmentalized industry in Russia known to cybersecurity researchers as “ransomware as a service.”

The organizational structure mimics franchises, like McDonald’s or Hertz, that lower barriers to entry, allowing less sophisticated hackers to use established business practices to get into the business. Several high-level gangs develop software and promote fearsome-sounding brands, such as DarkSide or Maze, to intimidate businesses and other organizations that are targets. Other groups that are only loosely related hack into computer systems using the brand and franchised software.

The industry’s growth has been abetted by the rise of cryptocurrencies. That has made old-school money mules, who sometimes had to smuggle cash across borders, practically obsolete.

Laundering the cryptocurrency through exchanges is the final step, and also the most vulnerable, because criminals must exit the anonymous online world to appear at a physical location, where they trade Bitcoin for cash or deposit it in a bank.

The exchange offices are “the end of the Bitcoin and ransomware rainbow,” said Gurvais Grigg, a former F.B.I. agent who is a researcher with Chainalysis, the cryptocurrency tracking company.

The computer codes in virtual currencies allow transactions to be tracked from one user to another, even if the owners’ identities are anonymous, until the cryptocurrency reaches an exchange. There, in theory, records should link the cryptocurrency with a real person or company.

“They are really one of the key points in the whole ransomware strain,” Mr. Grigg said of the exchange offices. Ransomware gangs, he said, “want to make money. And until you cash it out, and you get it through an exchange at a cash-out point, you cannot spend it.”

It is at this point, cybersecurity experts say, that criminals should be identified and apprehended. But the Russian government has allowed the exchanges to flourish, saying that it only investigates cybercrime if Russian laws are violated. Regulations are a gray area in Russia, as elsewhere, in the nascent industry of cryptocurrency trading.

Russian cryptocurrency traders say the United States is imposing an unfair burden of due diligence on their companies, given the quickly evolving nature of regulations.

“The people who are real criminals, who create ransomware, and the people working in Moscow City are completely different people,” Sergei Mendeleyev, a founder of one trader based in Federation Tower East, Garantex, said in an interview. The Russian crypto exchanges, he said, were blamed for crimes they are unaware of.

Mr. Mendeleyev, who no longer works at the company, said American cryptocurrency tracking services provide data to non-Russian exchanges to help them avoid illicit transactions but have refused to work with Russian traders — in part because they suspect the traders might use the information to tip off criminals. That complicates the Russian companies’ efforts to root out illegal activity.

He conceded that not all Russian exchanges tried very hard. Some based in Moscow’s financial district were little more than an office, a safe full of cash and a computer, he said.

At least 15 cryptocurrency exchanges are based in Federation Tower East, according to a list of businesses in the building compiled by Yandex, a Russian mapping service.

In addition to Suex and EggChange, the companies targeted by the Biden administration, cyberresearchers and an international cryptocurrency exchange company have flagged two other building tenants that they suspect of illegal activity involving Bitcoin.

The building manager, Aeon Corp., did not respond to inquiries about the exchanges in its offices.

Like the banks and insurance companies they share space with, those firms are likely to have chosen the site for its status and its stringent building security, said Mr. Smilyanets, the researcher at Recorded Future.

“The Moscow City skyscrapers are very fancy,” he said. “They can post on Instagram with these beautiful sights, beautiful skyscrapers. It boosts their legitimacy.”

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‘Moon Knight’ Took Marvel in a Different Orbit, but It Didn’t Rise to the Occasion

Jacob Scott

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Before anyone writes that off as an anomaly, “Eternals” tackled a similar introduction of a dense mythology on the bigger screen, with equally mixed results. It’s a reminder that while film-goers have had more than a decade to get to know characters like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, introducing some of these lesser-known heroes can pose a more formidable challenge beyond catering to the most ardent fans.
For Marvel, there are warning signs in that, since “Moon Knight” will be followed by several series based on second-tier characters, although the next two on the horizon, “Ms. Marvel” (which is due in June) and “She-Hulk,” at least have the benefit of sharing franchises and name recognition with existing Avengers.
Ultimately, “Moon Knight’s” murky storytelling appeared to squander its principal assets, which included the cool look of the character — a costume that was too seldom used — and the presence of Isaac, who possesses additional genre credentials via the “Star Wars” sequels.

Taking its time in peeling back the layers of the character’s complicated backstory, “Moon Knight” took a weird plunge into the Egyptian mythology behind it, in ways that became increasingly confounding and surreal.

By the time the protagonist’s two halves, Steven Grant and Marc Spector, wound up in a psychiatric hospital talking to an anthropomorphic hippo in the penultimate chapter, the question wasn’t so much being able to keep up with the story as whether bothering to do so was worth the effort.

The sixth and final episode brought the plot to a messy close, seeking to stop the goddess Ammit from proceeding to “purify the souls of Cairo, and then the world.” In the customary credit sequence, the producers capped that off by introducing a third personality, Jake Lockley, also rooted in the comics. While that seemingly spelled the end for the show’s villain (Ethan Hawke), the finish — giving the god Khonshu the protégé he sought — paved the way for further adventures should Marvel so choose.

That last twist might be cause for celebration in narrower confines of the Marvel fan universe, but “Moon Knight” too often felt like it was one long Easter-egg sequence, conspicuously preaching to that choir.

Granted, Marvel has made clear that Disney+ offers the chance to explore different kinds of stories, but “Moon Knight” feels at best like a quirky showcase for Isaac and at worst a failed experiment in terms of execution and tone.

That doesn’t mean this “Moon” won’t somehow rise again, if the closely held streaming data justifies it. But the promise that surrounded this property has faded, providing further evidence that even Marvel isn’t immune from setbacks as it moves into its next phase.

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Start-up Pony.ai says it’s the first self-driving company to get a taxi license in China

Jacob Scott

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Autonomous driving start-up Pony.ai can collect fares for robotaxi rides in parts of two major Chinese cities as of Sunday.

Pony.ai handout

BEIJING — Self-driving start-up Pony.ai announced Sunday it received a taxi license, the first of its kind in China.

The license allows Pony.ai to operate 100 self-driving cars as traditional taxis in the Nansha district of the southern city of Guangzhou, the company said.

The Chinese start-up, which is backed by Toyota, received approval from Beijing city late last year to charge fees to operate a commercial robotaxi business in a suburban district of the city. It is not the same as a taxi licence.

Baidu’s Apollo Go also received approval in the same Beijing district last year.

Pony.ai was valued at $8.5 billion in early March. The company said its Nansha taxi license required 24 months of autonomous driving testing in China and/or other countries, and no involvement in any active liability traffic accidents, among other factors.

The start-up said it plans to launch commercial robotaxi businesses in two other large Chinese cities next year. The company is already testing self-driving cars in those cities and in California. 

Robotaxis in China currently have a human driver present for safety.

— CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.

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How to watch Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies: TV channel, NBA live stream info, start time

Jacob Scott

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Who’s Playing

Memphis @ Minnesota

Current Records: Memphis 2-1; Minnesota 1-2

What to Know

The Memphis Grizzlies’ road trip will continue as they head to Target Center at 10 p.m. ET this past Saturday to face off against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Memphis will be strutting in after a win while Minnesota will be stumbling in from a loss.

The Grizzlies are hoping for another victory. They beat the Timberwolves 104-95 this past Thursday. The victory came about thanks to a strong surge after the first quarter to overcome a 39-21 deficit. Memphis’ success was spearheaded by the efforts of power forward Brandon Clarke, who had 20 points in addition to eight rebounds, and shooting guard Desmond Bane, who shot 7-for-15 from beyond the arc and finished with 26 points and six boards.

Barring any buzzer beaters, Memphis is expected to win a tight contest. They might be worth taking a chance on against the spread as they are currently on a two-game streak of ATS wins.

Memphis’ win brought them up to 2-1 while the Timberwolves’ defeat pulled them down to a reciprocal 1-2. A couple offensive stats to keep in the back of your head while watching: The Grizzlies come into the game boasting the second most points per game in the league at 115.6. But Minnesota is even better: they rank first in the league when it comes to points per game, with 115.9 on average. Tune in for what’s sure to be a high-scoring contest.

How To Watch

When: Saturday at 10 p.m. ET Where: Target Center — Minneapolis, Minnesota TV: ESPN Online streaming: fuboTV (Try for free. Regional restrictions may apply.) Follow: CBS Sports App Ticket Cost: $76.96

Odds

The Grizzlies are a slight 2.5-point favorite against the Timberwolves, according to the latest NBA odds.

The oddsmakers had a good feel for the line for this one, as the game opened with the Grizzlies as a 3-point favorite.

Over/Under: -110

See NBA picks for every single game, including this one, from SportsLine’s advanced computer model. Get picks now.

Series History

Memphis have won 19 out of their last 28 games against Minnesota.

Apr 21, 2022 – Memphis 104 vs. Minnesota 95 Apr 19, 2022 – Memphis 124 vs. Minnesota 96 Apr 16, 2022 – Minnesota 130 vs. Memphis 117 Feb 24, 2022 – Minnesota 119 vs. Memphis 114 Jan 13, 2022 – Memphis 116 vs. Minnesota 108 Nov 20, 2021 – Minnesota 138 vs. Memphis 95 Nov 08, 2021 – Memphis 125 vs. Minnesota 118 May 05, 2021 – Memphis 139 vs. Minnesota 135 Apr 02, 2021 – Memphis 120 vs. Minnesota 108 Jan 13, 2021 – Memphis 118 vs. Minnesota 107 Jan 07, 2020 – Memphis 119 vs. Minnesota 112 Dec 01, 2019 – Memphis 115 vs. Minnesota 107 Nov 06, 2019 – Memphis 137 vs. Minnesota 121 Mar 23, 2019 – Minnesota 112 vs. Memphis 99 Feb 05, 2019 – Memphis 108 vs. Minnesota 106 Jan 30, 2019 – Minnesota 99 vs. Memphis 97 Nov 18, 2018 – Memphis 100 vs. Minnesota 87 Apr 09, 2018 – Minnesota 113 vs. Memphis 94 Mar 26, 2018 – Memphis 101 vs. Minnesota 93 Dec 04, 2017 – Memphis 95 vs. Minnesota 92 Feb 04, 2017 – Memphis 107 vs. Minnesota 99 Nov 19, 2016 – Memphis 93 vs. Minnesota 71 Nov 01, 2016 – Minnesota 116 vs. Memphis 80 Oct 26, 2016 – Memphis 102 vs. Minnesota 98 Mar 16, 2016 – Minnesota 114 vs. Memphis 108 Feb 19, 2016 – Memphis 109 vs. Minnesota 104 Jan 23, 2016 – Minnesota 106 vs. Memphis 101 Nov 15, 2015 – Memphis 114 vs. Minnesota 106

Injury Report for Minnesota

No Injury Information

Injury Report for Memphis

Dillon Brooks: Game-Time Decision (Foot) Santi Aldama: Out (Knee) Killian Tillie: Out (Knee)

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