DOJ Charges Criminal ‘Influencers’ Who Worked for FBI’s Honeypot Phone Company

The defendants thought they worked for Anom, an encrypted phone company marketed to criminals. But the FBI was in control, and now the DOJ is charging them.
June 8, 2021, 6:11pm
Anom phone
Image: Screenshot of Anom website by Motherboard.

On Monday Motherboard reported that for years the FBI secretly ran an encrypted communications network called “Anom” popular among serious organized criminals in order to harvest the content of their communications. The elaborate operation has resulted in hundreds of arrests around the world. Now, the Department of Justice is also charging people who worked for the fake encrypted phone company, including administrators and "influencers" who used their position in the underworld to encourage criminals to use the Anom phones, according to newly unsealed court records.

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The defendants, some of which are international fugitives, include people in Turkey, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Spain, Colombia, and Thailand. The DOJ is charging them under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law traditionally used to target mafia bosses, but which the DOJ has recently used to prosecute encrypted phone companies that deliberately sold devices to criminals.

"Anom has generated the Defendants millions of dollars in profit by facilitating the criminal activity of transnational criminal organizations and protecting these organizations from law enforcement," the indictment against 17 individuals reads.

Do you know anything else about Anom? Were you a user? Did you work for the company? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

As Motherboard reported, in the wake of closing down another encrypted phone company called Phantom Secure in 2018, a confidential human source (CHS), who previously sold Phantom phones and another company called Sky Global, was developing their own encrypted phone product: Anom. The CHS then offered Anom to the FBI to use in investigations. As criminals left Phantom and later Sky, thousands of them flocked to Anom. But here, the FBI silently attached a master key to Anom's users' communications, allowing the agency and its partners to read messages passing over the network, messages that the criminal users believed were securely encrypted. Those messages included conversations around murder, large scale drug smuggling, and corruption, according to officials speaking in law enforcement press conferences this week and the court records.

But beyond using those highly incriminating messages for drug importation or other investigations, the DOJ is also charging the people who worked for Anom, albeit those who likely did not know Anom was secretly run by the FBI.

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Those staff included "administrators" who were able to set up new subscriptions for customers, remove accounts, and remotely wipe the devices. As well as removing the microphone and camera functionality, some firms in the encrypted phone space can remove data from a device in case it is seized by law enforcement. The indictment says that Anom staff obstructed law enforcement by carrying out such wipes.

The workers also included "influencers," which the indictment says were "well-known crime figures who wield significant power and influence over other criminal associates. These influencers have also built a reputation for their knowledge and expertise in the hardened encrypted device field and use that power, knowledge, and expertise to promote, market, and encourage others to use specific hardened encrypted devices."

"Distributors" provide technical support for customers, send money back up to the parent company, and manage "agents," who in turn are on the ground meeting and engaging with customers of the phones. These staff all remained anonymous even to one another in order to try and evade law enforcement, the document reads.

The purpose of Anom, beyond being a honeypot for law enforcement to monitor criminal activity, was to obstruct investigations of drug trafficking and money laundering organizations, and to enrich the workers by taking payment for each Anom device, among other things. Those devices cost $1,700 AUD per six month subscription in Australia; €1,000-1,500 Euros; and $1,700 CAD in North America, the indictment adds.

Ironically, Anom workers told customers that the network was "designed by criminals for criminals," and that the company was not subject to U.S. law, including the U.S. surveillance law the Patriot Act, "to increase trust in the Anom brand as being secure for drug trafficking and money laundering," the indictment adds.

The defendants are Joseph Hakan Ayik, Domenico Catanzariti, Maximilian Rivkin, Abdelhakim Aharchaou, Seyyed Hossein Hosseini, Alexander Dmitrienko, Baris Tukel, Erkan Yusef Dogan, Shane Geoffrey May, Aurangzeb Ayub, James Thomas Flood, Srdjan Todorovic aka Dr. Djek, Shane Ngakuru, Edwin Harmendra Kumar, Omar Malik, Miwand Zakhimi, and Osemah Elhassen.