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Suspected Russian spam boss arrested in Spain at US request

FBI Director James Comey confirmed his agency was investigating alleged Russian interference in the presidential election when he testified in front of US House committee in March. Eric Thayer/New York Times/File

MADRID — A man alleged to be a major Russian spamming operative has been detained in Spain at the request of US authorities, an arrest that set cybersecurity circles abuzz after a Russian broadcaster raised the possibility it was also linked to the US presidential election.

Pyotr Levashov, 36, was arrested Friday in Barcelona after a joint FBI-Spanish operation also aimed at bringing down his Kelihos botnet, Spanish authorities said in a statement, describing one of the better known networks of compromised computers.

Levashov is accused by a leading spam watchdog and other cybercrime watchers of being Peter Severa, who has been mentioned in relation to the Kelihos botnet. The arrest drew attention after his wife told Russia’s RT broadcaster that he told her he was being linked to America’s 2016 election hacking.


RT quoted Maria Levashova as saying that armed police stormed into their apartment in Barcelona, keeping her and her friend locked in a room for two hours while they quizzed her husband.

She said that when she spoke by phone to her husband after his arrest, he said he was told he had created a computer virus that was ‘‘linked to Trump’s election win.’’

Levashova didn’t elaborate, and the exact nature of the allegations weren’t immediately clear. Malicious software is routinely shared, reworked, and repurposed, meaning that even a computer virus’s creator may have little or nothing to do with how the virus is eventually used.

The initial reports in Russian media of Levashov’s arrest did not say if he was suspected by US intelligence agencies of being involved in attempts by Russian government hackers to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election.

The US intelligence agencies have said Russian hackers broke into the servers of the Democratic National Committee and the e-mail of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and released documents in an effort to sway the election toward President Trump.


Levashov himself couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, and officials did not say whether he had a lawyer.

The US Embassy in Spain declined comment. Russian Embassy spokesman Vasily Nioradze confirmed the arrest, but wouldn’t say whether he was a programmer, as reported by RT. Nioradze wouldn’t comment on the US extradition order.

‘‘As it is routine in these cases, we offer consular support to our citizen,’’ he said.

Some Western cybersecurity researchers have raised doubts about whether Levashov is Peter Severa. If law enforcement officials confirm that he is, his arrest could mark a break in prosecuting Russian spam and computer crime.

Russian Internet sites have a reputation as repositories of pornography and pirated content, and as a birthplace for global fraud schemes.

Spamhaus, a group that tracks spammers, has for years listed Peter Severa as among the top 10 perpetrators in the world, and has identified him as Levashov.