Russia calling? Scammers target high-level Western officials

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A pro-Russian prankster impersonates a former US ambassador to Moscow in live video calls, part of a disinformation campaign that researchers say seeks to ensnare high-level Western officials since the invasion of Ukraine.

Russian comedy duo Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexei Stolyarov, who go by Vovan and Lexus, have long been notorious for pranking politicians and celebrities around the world, from Justin Trudeau to Elton John and Boris Johnson.

But the pair, once dubbed Russia’s Jerky Boys who have long denied any connection to the Kremlin, appear to have steadily morphed from mischief-makers to a pro-Kremlin tool of information warfare.

Cybersecurity researchers say that since the start of Russia’s invasion, they have ramped up their targeting of high-profile officials and executives in North America and Europe who have spoken out against Moscow.

“WARNING. Someone using the phone number +1 (202) 7549885 is impersonating me,” Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Moscow, tweeted last September.

“If you connect on a video platform with this number, you will see an AI-generated ‘deepfake’ that looks and talks like me. It is not me. This is a new Russian weapon of war.”

McFaul, who served as the envoy from 2012-14, told Agence France-Presse that the impersonator appeared “live” in calls to many in the Ukrainian government and “spoke in Russian”, a language he knows but not fluently.

The questions the hoaxer asked were “obviously designed to undermine Ukraine’s diplomatic and war efforts,” McFaul added.

Proofpoint, a California-based cybersecurity firm, said its analysts have assessed with “high confidence” that this was the work of Vovan and Lexus, together dubbed TA499.

“For a time, TA499 utilised McFaul as an impersonated identity in attempts to obtain contact with high-ranking officials internationally,” Proofpoint’s researchers said.

“This phone number was noted in our data in a known TA499 campaign.”


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