Student cyber-scammers get light sentences

After 13 months of investigation, in September 2010 the FBI arrested 37 students from former Soviet republics, accusing them of using forged documents and a computer virus to steal $3 million from banks.

The most serious charge in the 12-count indictment was conspiracy to commit bank fraud, and the authorities, who trumpeted the arrests, said those convicted faced long prison sentences.

Now, though, many of those arrested are back home. Their sentences ranged from two to 11 months. The longest sentence was four years. Eight are still at large, and they, too, may be back in Russia.

The case caused a sensation in Russia, where on Internet forums and TV shows, people said the students were young and foolish, rather than criminal.

Writing in Russian Bazaar, Evgeniy Novickiy draws two conclusions: American law enforcement deliberately makes outsized claims when it arrests people; and the visa system that brings Eastern European students to the U.S. is flawed and outdated.

“American intelligence agencies advertise their activities in Hollywood style,” he writes, hyping the crimes in order to win praise, promotions and solid funding.

Then, as journalists lose interest, the legal system applies the brakes. “I, personally, don’t understand how most of the “cyber-scammers of the century” could get less than a year in prison.

As for the Work and Travel USA program that lets students from post-Soviet countries come to the U.S. with a J-1 visa, Novickiy writes that in recent years, “J-1ers constantly show up in criminal reports in connection with shoplifting, document forgery, drug abuse, immigration scams, etc. All of this happens in circumstances of increasing unemployment that could somehow explain the criminal bent of Russian-speaking students.”

He continues, “The staff of American consulates approves or declines visa applications according to a quota set by the government. They can refuse to issue an entry visa for an honest and law-abiding person, but approve an application of a prospective criminal with a criminal scheme in mind.

“The outcome is the following: Russian-speaking J-1ers will certainly stand-out again in relation to grandiose scams, and American secret services won’t miss a chance to show their ‘professionalism’ in guaranteeing the ‘security of U.S. citizens.’”

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