For almost four years, he sat in Israel’s Hadarim Prison without anyone taking any interest in him. He was described as a quiet man who caused no disciplinary problems. Aleksey Burkov, 29, required no special attention from his jailers or anyone else, aside from a few Russian-speaking prisoners with whom he became friendly.
But last weekend, it became clear to everyone that he was a hacker wanted by both Washington and Moscow. And now, his fate has been tied to that of a woman he has never met – Naama Issachar, the Israeli sentenced by a Russian court last Friday to 7.5 years in jail for having smuggled 9.6 grams of hashish. She was arrested while changing planes in Russia on her way home from a yoga course in India.
Since last weekend, when word got out that Russia had pressed Israel to exchange him for Issachar, Burkov has become one of Israel’s most famous prisoners. What still remains unclear is the chain of events that led to Issachar’s severe sentence, and why Burkov has become “an asset of supreme importance” to Moscow, as one senior Israeli official involved in the case put it. “The story is a mystery,” a senior law enforcement official agreed.
Nevertheless, sifting through past events and talking with the main characters can shed some light on that.
The first chapter of the story took place between 2009 and 2013. During this period, American officials suspect that a website called cardplanet.cc sold credit card details of some 150,000 Americans to online criminals, a massive fraud that added up to around $20 million. Investigations by the U.S. Secret Service – which, aside from guarding the president, is responsible for fighting fraud – eventually pinned a young Russian from St. Petersburg as the site’s main operator.
In 2015, an international arrest warrant was issued for Burkov, and he was charged in a Virginia court with several counts of fraud, identity theft, computer hacking and money laundering. According to a brief filed by U.S. prosecutors, he publicized his website on underground web forums widely used by internet criminals and solicited those criminals to steal credit card data and sell it.
Burkov has never confessed to the charges. But in 2011, “he published a post on a forum in which he boasted of the acts of which he’s now accused,” said Elia Stcin, who researches hackers. “It included some of the open-source code he used to break into American computers and steal account data.”
Stcin, a resident of the south who now works as a programmer, said Monday that he recalled seeing Burkov’s username, Zero Day, on various underground forums. He added that many Israeli hackers have at least a virtual acquaintance with Burkov or one of his various usernames.
Stcin stressed that he doesn’t know whether Burkov actually committed the crimes in question or was merely taking credit for someone else’s deeds. Moreover, if he is guilty, Stcin says he "has no idea who he was working for.”
Nevertheless, he added, he’s familiar with Burkov’s work as a programmer, and he definitely had the necessary technical skills. “We would contact him about all kinds of bugs we had in websites,” Stcin said. “If we had something sensitive that we wanted to block off, he was the right address.”
But according to the U.S. Secret Service, and to other American intelligence agencies, according to one Israeli source – Burkov was much more than a talented programmer. So the hunt for him continued, even after the arrest warrant was issued and charges were filed.
The breakthrough occurred in late 2015, when a Secret Service agent investigated a Russian social media account operated by Burkov under a fictitious name. What gave him away? He posted a screenshot of his computer in which an open tab showed the transactions page of the website that sold credit card data. Only the site operator had access to that page, the Secret Service said.
Burkov’s activity on the social media site also revealed his location: He posted a picture of himself and some friends on vacation in Thailand. From there, according to a source involved in the case, he went to Egypt. But his next stop proved to be his last: When he decided to hop over from Sinai to visit Eilat, he was arrested at the border crossing due to the American arrest warrant, and he was sent for interrogation.
Aside from the Israeli interrogator, the Secret Service agent who tracked Burkov down and another American agent were also present in the interrogation room. According to an affidavit subsequently filed by the first agent, Burkov admitted that the website had been under his management for years. Moreover, a search of his cellphone and text messages supported that claim.
In addition to managing the credit card website, Burkov also managed a forum for internet criminals called Cyber-Crime, which served as a way for these criminals to connect with each other, the Americans said. He displayed the stolen credit card data on that site as well.
Washington requested his extradition, and proceedings began in the Jerusalem District Court. But while those proceedings were underway, Russia suddenly filed its own extradition request, saying Burkov was also wanted there for internet fraud. Unlike the American request, however, the Russian one was very thin on supporting evidence, according to sources that saw them both.
The legal proceedings took a very long time. After the district court ruled in favor of Burkov’s extradition, he appealed to the Supreme Court, and the latter finally approved his extradition to the United States only this past August.
From there, it should have been smooth sailing. But then Issachar was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced – and suddenly, there was a new twist in the plot.
Over the last six months, the second part of the saga unfolded in Moscow and turned a case involving possession of a small amount of drugs into a resounding conviction.
"Only now have I understood that Burkov was behind it the whole time," Yaffa Issachar, Naama's mother, said in a phone conversation with Haaretz from Moscow. “He was the reason for the foot-dragging during the trial and the reason they changed the charge from possession to smuggling. He’s the reason the police investigation went on for four months and he’s the reason behind the harsh sentence.”
Not all of Naama's friends and family were surprised by Aleksey Burkov's intrusion into their lives. Yisrael Cohen, Yaffa's brother, learned about Burkov a few months ago. Shortly after the family told their story online and asked the public for help, they received some unexpected responses. One family member saw a comment by a friend of Burkov's connecting Naama's release to the Russian hacker's, Cohen said.
At first, he ignored it, thinking it was a mistake, but the comments kept coming. Family members and other activists advocating for Issachar's release told Haaretz that they were pressured to act toward getting Burkov released.
"During her detention there were many strange things, one after another, like a domino effect," said Dor Tzur, a friend of Issachar who runs a Facebook page devoted to her release. "We got a lot of appeals, mainly from [Burkov's] close friends, some of the profiles looked fake and all of them were Russian."
According to Tzur, the appeals came in various forms, both on the Facebook page and directly to family members. "It started with people saying 'if you want Naama released he has to be released too," Tzur said. "We didn’t understand who these people were or what they wanted. She was just a normal backpacker that got arrested. Something felt off, but we couldn't accept it since there was no link between them."
But the appeals didn't stop, some became more pointed. "We received some aggressive, violent messages, saying she'd rot in jail," Tzur added.
One post about the hacker's arrest went so far as to say that Naama was being held prisoner because the Russian's want Burkov. The post was signed by Andrei Lozgin from Rishon Letzion. "When I first hear Naama's story, I was moved by it and posted in some Russian groups," Lozgin said. "They immediately told me about Burkov." He says he spoke to someone he met online and the two started wondering what Russian prisoners were being held in Israeli jails. He immediately came up with Burkov.
As the comments increased, the family started to look for a possible connection, but to Naama's mother and brother it sounded like a conspiracy.
The turning point came when the family started receiving messages from someone named Constantin Beckenstein and said he was a friend of Burkov. "He wouldn't stop calling," Tzur said, adding that Beckenstein turned directly to Naama's friends and family. "We stopped answering and he got more aggressive," Tzur said. "We told him we didn't want any contact with him. He wished us luck, but said, 'Naama won't be released until Aleksey is.'"
On her way to the detention center in Moscow on Monday, to meet her daughter for the first time since her sentencing, Yaffa Issachar described Beckenstein's determination. She said that he would send personal messages and emails to her and her other daughter.
"He said he had a friend in jail and that we should join forces to get him released," Issachar said, "What joining forces? I didn’t answer him. He sent another message looking for sympathy. At some point he sent a letter from Burkov, telling the hacker's story. I didn’t reply because I didn’t see any connection between Naama and some Russian hacker. I didn’t think it was important. I blocked him on my phone, his messages scared me. After Yom Kippur, right before she was sentenced, he emailed me. I said we could talk, but then my daughter told me it was the same guy who'd been bothering us all this time."
What’s the connection?
It's hard to ascertain the connection between Burkov and Beckenstein since the latter won't reveal how they met or give any other details.
Beckenstein was born in 1973 and lives in Petah Tikva. A Haaretz investigation revealed he has a criminal record. Two years ago, he was convicted in a plea bargain for stealing 250,000 shekels from the travel company Mona Tours, where he worked as an agent. Beckenstein now has several websites in Russian where he presents himself as a tour guide.
In 2008, Beckenstein fled the country and settled in Ukraine. In 2016, after lengthy extradition proceedings, he returned to Israel and was sentenced to 20 months in jail. From his extradition until his sentencing in 2017, Beckenstein was in Hadarim prison, were Burkov is being held. Beckenstein refused to confirm that he met Burkov in jail.
So why would Beckenstein decide to help? He says he volunteered to help the hacker and contact the family out of good will. Motive? After consulting with Burkov, Beckenstein said he "came to understand that there is a connection between the two cases."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now