Ukrainian man pleads to role in Russian scheme

Officials mum on further investigation

CONCORD – The Ukrainian man caught buying electronics in New Hampshire with gift cards obtained through the fraudulent actions of a criminal organization based in Russia pleaded guilty Wednesday.

Yuriy Khalabuda, 37, appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Joseph DiClerico in the federal court in Concord to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Khalabuda, wearing a jail uniform from the Strafford County House of Corrections, told DiClerico he was unaware of the many victims involved in the scheme until after his arrest.

“I found out about those victims through this process,” Khalabuda said through a court-appointed interpreter.

According to court records, the international syndicate Khalabuda worked for ripped off people in California, Arizona, and Florida for more than $200,000. The syndicate lured in those seeking employment online by offering them a new job. Once hired by a bogus company, the victims were told to purchase gift cards from Best Buy and other retailers. These cards were supposed to be used to set up the new offices for the employees. Instead, they were sent off to other members of the crime syndicate.

Authorities caught Khalabuda in Salem buying Apple products at the Best Buy. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Kinsella said this was part of a plan to turn the gift cards into cash. Khalabuda apparently bought Apple products at various locations every day before shipping them off to others in the syndicate every night.

“The assumption is (the products) were given to others to sell for a profit,” Kinsella said.

Salem Police Detective Sgt. Eric O’Brien caught Khalabuda in New Hampshire with instructions from his foreign-based compatriots to purchase electronic goods with the gift cards. A store security clerk alerted O’Brien to Khalabuda’s suspicious purchases in May 2017, at which point the investigator was in the store making personal purchases.

Police stopped Khalabuda and allegedly found the gift cards, as well as instructions written to him in Russian on his phone. The translated messages show Khalabuda had specific instructions for making purchases with the gift cards in New Hampshire, including what stores to shop at, what stores to stay out of, how fast to drive, and how much cash to carry at any given time. He was even to sleep at designated safe houses instead of hotels.

“If caught, let us know any way possible. Keep silent. Don’t say a word. Tell them you don’t understand and need an interpreter,” one text message states. “Sooner you notify us, the sooner we can find an attorney. Hope this never happens to you.”

Kinsella declined to speak about any further investigation into the crime syndicate, saying he can neither confirm nor deny any investigation. So far, there have been no other arrests associated with the crime syndicate.

Federal officials are cautioning people to be aware of potential scams such as the one the syndicate perpetrated on the victims in this case. People should know to whom and where they are sending money, they said.

Damien Fisher can be reached at 594-1245 or dfisher@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_DF.