Russian Cybercriminal Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison for Digital Advertising Fraud Scheme
Self-Proclaimed “King of Fraud!” Aleksandr Zhukov Stole More Than $7 Million from Advertisers, Publishers, Platforms and Others in the United States
Earlier today, at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, Aleksandr Zhukov was sentenced by United States District Judge Eric R. Komitee to 10 years’ imprisonment for perpetrating a digital advertising fraud scheme through which the defendant and his co-conspirators stole more than $7 million from U.S. advertisers, publishers, platforms, and others in the U.S. digital advertising industry. The Court also ordered Zhukov to pay $3,827,493 in forfeiture. Zhukov, a Russian national who was arrested in Bulgaria in 2018, was extradited to the United States in 2019, and was convicted following a jury trial in May 2021 of wire fraud conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering conspiracy, and money laundering.
Breon Peace, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Michael J. Driscoll, Assistant Director-in-Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New York Field Office (FBI), and Dermot F. Shea, Commissioner, New York City Police Department (NYPD), announced the sentence.
“Sitting at his computer keyboard in Bulgaria and Russia, Zhukov boldly devised and carried out an elaborate multi-million-dollar fraud against the digital advertising industry, and victimized thousands of companies across the United States,” stated United States Attorney Peace. “Today’s sentence holds the defendant accountable for his deception and outright theft of more than $7 million, and sends a powerful message to cyber criminals around the world that there is no escape from the international reach of law enforcement.”
Between September 2014 and December 2016, Zhukov operated a purported advertising network—Media Methane—and carried out a digital advertising fraud scheme that came to be known as “Methbot.” Media Methane had business arrangements with other advertising networks whereby it received payment in return for placing advertisements—primarily video advertisements—on websites. Rather than place advertisements on real publishers’ webpages where human internet users would see them, Zhukov rented more than 2,000 computer servers housed in commercial datacenters in Dallas, Texas, Amsterdam and the Netherlands, and programmed the datacenter computer servers (the “bots”) to simulate humans viewing ads on webpages. Zhukov and his co-conspirators programmed the bots to load real ads on blank webpages while falsely representing that the ads were loading on real webpages, “spoofing” the domains of more than 6,000 publishers, including The New York Times, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Newsday, and the Staten Island Advance.
To create the illusion that human internet users were viewing the advertisements loaded onto these spoofed webpages, Zhukov and his co-conspirators programmed the bots to appear and behave like human internet users: falsely representing that they had screens and mouses, that they were running operating systems used for personal computers, and that they were running commercially available internet browsers (like Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Firefox), when they were not. Zhukov and his co-conspirators also programmed the bots to click around a screen a randomly determined number of times, simulate a mouse moving around and scrolling down a webpage, start and stop a video player midway, bypass captchas, accept cookies, and falsely appear to be signed into popular social media services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google.
In addition, the defendant leased more than 765,000 Internet Protocol (“IP”) addresses, assigned multiple IP addresses to each datacenter server, and then fraudulently registered IP addresses in the names of major U.S. internet providers. Zhukov entered the false usage and location information into IP databases that are widely relied upon in the industry to make it appear that the computers in question belonged to human internet users located in homes and businesses around the United States.
Zhukov recruited computer programmers and other employees to help him perpetrate the scheme and build the technical infrastructure required to create fraudulent ad traffic. He referred to these individuals as “my developers,” and referred to himself as the “king of fraud!”
The victim companies collectively paid more than $7 million for ads that were never actually viewed by human internet users and never actually displayed on real webpages.
Zhukov directed and transferred proceeds from the scheme to and through multiple personal and corporate bank accounts in Bulgaria, Russia, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Cyprus. He kept 75% of the scheme’s proceeds for himself and pocketed more than $4.8 million from the fraud.
The government’s case is being handled by the Office’s National Security and Cybercrime Section. Assistant United States Attorneys Saritha Komatireddy, Artie McConnell, and Alexander F. Mindlin are in charge of the prosecution. The Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs, the FBI’s Legal Attachés abroad and foreign authorities in multiple countries provided critical assistance in this case.
E.D.N.Y. Docket No. 18-CR-633 (EK)