Petro Ponomarenko* wants his money back. And his computers. He needs the money for his child, who is suffering from a heart ailment. And he needs the computers to earn a living, even if they are old. "I bought everything on flea markets like eBay," he says. He claims to have used them to perform a bit of maintenance on servers belonging to regular customers, for $40 to $80 a month each. For other customers, he says, he has helped install new programs or transfer data from one computer to another. A kind of digital janitor: That’s the image he would like to portray.
Investigators from Germany and the United States, though, believe that Petro Ponomarenko is a key player in one of the most significant instances of digital extortion in recent years. They believe the 48-year-old is a central player in a worldwide criminal network. Even just having found Ponomarenko is a huge success for investigators. Authorities, after all, are almost never able to track down those involved in cyber-extortion operations. Mostly, in fact, they can’t even figure out who is behind them.
A team of reporters from DIE ZEIT and the public broadcaster Bayerische Rundfunk was able to establish contact with Petro Ponomarenko. He insists he is innocent, saying he was working on one of his computers when police clad in bullet-proof vests forced their way into his apartment. They searched his numerous PCs and confiscated a significant amount of cash. "They said that the servers were being used to control a dangerous extortion software," he says. "I didn’t know anything about it."