How to Steal A Million
by Jonathan Lusthaus
There is a rich tradition of biographies and autobiographies of mobsters. The most famous might be Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, which tells the story of Lucchese crime family associate Henry Hill, and was adapted by Martin Scorsese into the classic movie Goodfellas. Other worthy reads include Underboss about the life of Sammy “The Bull” Gravano and Donnie Brasco, Joseph Pistone’s undercover account of life inside the Bonanno Crime Family in the 1970s.
Unfortunately, we are not as well served with personal accounts of major cybercriminal figures. Of course, there are books like Kevin Mitnick’s Ghost in the Wires and Michael Calce’s Mafiaboy, but these are stories of an earlier period of social engineering and hacking, rather than inside accounts of the financially-motivated industry of cybercrime that has existed since the turn of the Millennium. Only Kevin Poulsen’s excellent Kingpin provides a detailed biography of a leading cybercriminal (Max Butler), though this is largely an American-focussed narrative, with lesser information on the Eastern European scene.
Thankfully, Sergey Pavlovich’s autobiography How to Steal a Million has emerged to help fill this void. Throughout my travels in Eastern Europe, a number of people kept recommending a book written by a Belorussian former cybercriminal known as PoliceDog. Published in 2013, it was only available in Russian, limiting its reach and making it largely a regional curio. With its recent translation into English, with the help of Howard Amos, Pavlovich’s story can now be read by a much wider audience.
There is a lot of interest within this book. Primarily, it provides insight into the life and operations of an Eastern European cybercriminal. This is a world that is often talked about within cybersecurity circles, but usually from an outsider’s perspective. As a former member of the CarderPlanet network, Pavlovich provides a rare insider narrative of this world in the 2000s: the peculiar mechanics of operating within the “carding” business; the nature of the forum scene; his (sometimes gossipy) interactions with leading cybercriminals of the period; along with his his run-ins with the law (and also corrupt law enforcement officials). Additionally, he explicates the broader socioeconomic context that provides a cradle for leading cybercriminal actors:
“Many [cybercriminals] were very technically-minded, had taken maths or physics at universities and colleges and had engineer parents. […] But hackers in Russia also thrive because the police do not have enough resources to find murderers, let alone hunt hackers […] If the Russian police do find them, then there’s no need to go to prison: usually it’s easy enough to pay the police to be his protection. Even if the case ends up in court, hackers often receive conditional sentences because they can simply buy the courts”.
While this is a book about cybercrime, it is also a book about surviving life in the Belarusian prison system. My interest in reading Pavlovich’s story was his cybercriminal background, but I have to admit that I ended up finding his stories about confinement in ex-Soviet penitentiaries equally fascinating. This is not a perspective that many authors can provide. And, in the end, prison life is indeed a relevant aspect of understanding cybercriminal life in the region.
Pavlovich’s writing is clear and has a surprising literary quality. In some sense, it fits within a long tradition of writings about crime and gulag life in Eastern European prose. This is far from a prosaic account, but suggests the author has a talent and spark for endeavours beyond cybercrime. While not all are destined to be writers, this matches my experience – I have encountered significant talent among numerous Eastern European cybercriminals, which is probably what makes them such a global threat.
In an effort to maintain levity, one of the more interesting stylistic choices of the book is to use dialogue to convey technical details about cybercrime. Rather than long passages detailing dense information, uninformed characters ask the lead character the sorts of questions some readers might also wish to ask. Other characters speak with an unexpected precision and poetry: “When an entrepreneur doesn’t find a way to fulfil his talents, he becomes a criminal”, philosophises one of Pavlovich’s cellmates at one point.
For all its many positive qualities, it should not be forgotten that this book is effectively a rogue’s tale. Its biggest flaw is that, without other supporting evidence, we can’t know for certain what is true and what is not. To leave PoliceDog to conclude:
“This book is about my time as a successful cyber-criminal and my experience in the Belarusian penal system, which has changed little since the Soviet Union. The events and people are real. The way they are depicted, however, is my own. I’ve changed a few names and removed some altogether. I’ve softened some things and embellished others – it’s something all authors do. It is up to you to decide if I can be trusted. Read — and draw your own conclusions”.