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Foreign spies ready to enact cyberattacks on Russia’s banks, nation says

A security specialist works at a computer station with a cyber threat map displayed on a wall in front of him in the Cyber Security Operations Center at AEP headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. (John Minchillo / Associated Press file)
A security specialist works at a computer station with a cyber threat map displayed on a wall in front of him in the Cyber Security Operations Center at AEP headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. (John Minchillo / Associated Press file)
By Tony Halpin and Volodymyr Verbyany Bloomberg

Russia accused foreign spy agencies of preparing cyberattacks in dozens of cities to try to undermine its banking system.

Attacks may begin on Monday with the goal “of destabilizing the financial system of the Russian Federation, including the activities of a number of major Russian banks,” the Federal Security Service, the successor body to the Soviet-era KGB, said in a website statement Friday.

The attackers plan to use servers based in The Netherlands that belong to a Ukrainian hosting company, BlazingFast, the security agency known as the FSB said. The plot involves mass distribution of text messages and social-media blogs alleging a crisis in Russia’s financial system including bankruptcies and the removal of licenses from well-known federal and regional banks, it said.

The warning follows accusations that Russia meddled in U.S. presidential elections by hacking into the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Russian central bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina has pointed to new financial technologies as the biggest challenge for the regulator.

Banks themselves are equally at threat: A commercial bank in Ecuador said it was held up for $12 million last year, while a bank in Vietnam said criminals tried, and failed, to steal $1.1 million in what experts say may have been a practice run for Bangladesh. In February, thieves made off with $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh.

The FSB didn’t identify the spy agencies it said are involved in preparing the attack on Russian lenders. Its announcement comes amid tensions over Ukrainian missile-defense drills taking place near Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. The Russian, Ukrainian, German and French foreign ministers also failed to make progress at talks in Belarus on Tuesday in implementing an accord to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine involving separatists backed by Russia.

BlazingFast has “plenty of clients leasing our servers” and the company hasn’t been contacted by law enforcement, Chief Executive Officer Anton Onopriychuk said by phone in Kiev on Friday.

“We will conduct an internal investigation, but it will take a lot of time, as it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” he said. “That’s why I can neither confirm nor deny this information at the moment.”

Agents are taking “necessary measures to neutralize threats to the economic and information security” of Russia, the FSB said in its statement, which didn’t explain why it decided to publicize the alleged plot.

The Bank of Russia is aware of the threat and is working with law enforcement to prevent it, state-run RIA Novosti news service reported Friday, citing an unidentified source close to the regulator. State-owned Sberbank, Russia’s largest lender, said there was no threat to its operations from cyberattacks, according to the Tass news service.

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