Las Vegas Sun

August 7, 2022

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Russian gang hacked slot machines, operated in Nevada, feds say

NEW YORK — There were the usual accouterments of an organized crime prosecution: an illegal poker house and cases of stolen cigarettes, authorities said.

But there was also a scheme to defraud casinos with a hacking device that predicted the behavior of particular models of electronic slot machines. And a plot for a woman to seduce men, drug them with chloroform and then rob them.

There was even a large shipment of stolen sweets: 10,000 pounds of chocolate confections that two defendants were overheard discussing on a court-ordered wiretap in March, according to a federal indictment.

In all, charges were unsealed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Wednesday against 31 people. Many of them, according to the indictment, were based in New York City but others operated in Florida, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and abroad. They were mostly from the former Soviet Union, and many had strong ties to Georgia, Ukraine and Russia.

Mark Galeotti, a Russian crime specialist at the Institute of International Relations Prague in the Czech Republic, said the case showed how Russian and other Eurasian crime groups had sought to move into new and often ingenious areas of illegal activity, like trying to beat casino machines through hacking.

“What surprises me actually is they were still involved in the traditional types of crime,” Galeotti said in a telephone interview after being told about the charges.

Most of those charged were accused of being part of a nationwide racketeering enterprise led by Razhden Shulaya of Edgewater, New Jersey, who faces racketeering conspiracy and other counts.

Shulaya, 40, was described in the indictment as a “vor v zakonei” or “vor,” which it said were Russian phrases that translate roughly as “thief-in-law” and refer to “an order of elite criminals from the former Soviet Union” who, among other things, receive tribute from other criminals.

“As a vor,” the indictment said, “Shulaya had substantial influence in the criminal underworld and offered assistance to and protection of the members and associates” of the enterprise.

Joon H. Kim, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the case was one of the first federal racketeering charges ever brought against a Russian vor. Kim announced the unsealing of the charges with William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of the FBI’s New York office; James P. O’Neill, the New York police commissioner; and Leon Hayward, the acting head of Customs and Border Protection’s New York office.

Authorities unsealed a total of three indictments and one criminal complaint. A lawyer for Shulaya could not immediately be reached for comment.

The documents showed that investigators relied on cooperating informers. One, described as CS-1, had been arrested in a murder-for-hire plot involving Russian organized crime and had served about six years in prison, the complaint said. Since being released, the complaint noted, the informer has worked for the FBI as a paid source.

Authorities offered few details about the slot-machine scheme. In January, they said, Shulaya was overheard in a phone call discussing the testing of devices that would predict slot-machine behavior; in another call, he was told about the reconnaissance of a casino that featured a particular model of slot machine that would be susceptible to the device.

In April, the device was used in a casino near Philadelphia, netting the group more than $1,000, one of the indictments said.

“Using computers is second nature to many of these groups,” said Galeotti, the expert in Russian crime. He added that when people hear about Russian organized crime, they often have an image of a stereotypical Russian thug.

“Yes, there are tattooed thugs around,” he noted. “But actually the kind of Russian gangster one sees in America is more likely to be a fraudster, a hacker or semi-criminal businessman.”