Ukrainian Phone Scammers Allegedly Tricking Russians Into Torching Military Offices

The government of Russia is warning residents to be on guard against phone scammers from Ukraine who trick elderly Russians into setting fire to military enlistment offices after a recent surge in such arson attacks around the country, state media reported Tuesday.

Moscow’s interior ministry issued a caution that a “sharp increase” in firebombings at registration offices were all linked by variations on the same scam, according to RIA Novosti. “They not only steal the money of deceived Russians, but also try to involve them in committing sabotage and terrorist acts,” the ministry said.

Since the end of July, over three dozen military registration and enlistment offices have gone up in flames around Russia, according to Meduza. Many of the people subsequently detained and accused of the attacks say they were duped by fraudsters who gave them instructions while claiming to be officers with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

According to the interior ministry, the scam typically works like this: Russian victims receive a phone call in which they are informed about suspicious banking transactions, or they’re invited to help Russian authorities “stop criminals.” The first phase of the grift then involves gaining access to—and ultimately stealing—the victim’s money.

Once complete, the scammers shift to a second phase in which the victim is told of an opportunity either to get their money back, take revenge on the scammer who swiped their cash, or help law enforcement catch the fraudsters. At this stage, the ministry says the scammers’ goal is to “push their easily influenced victims into crime.”

Another option scammers allegedly use to convince their aged victims to do something even more extreme than hand their money over is to simply threaten the victim or the victim’s family with violence. “But whatever the pretext, everything ends the same way,” the ministry said. “A demand to set fire to military, transport or banking infrastructure.”

In one recent example, a 66-year-old supermarket cashier was detained last week after she was filmed setting fire to the door of a military enlistment office in St. Petersburg. She reportedly said she’d been instructed to do so by someone who said they were from the “security service” who first began contacting her in May, eventually talking her into a scheme to help catch scammers. The woman was allegedly even taken by a taxi to a gas station where she bought materials to make a Molotov cocktail and told to disguise herself with a scarf and sunglasses before setting fire to the building.

State media reported that the ministry has seen fraudsters “massively” accelerate the use of the scam over the last week—which Russian authorities interpret as evidence of Ukraine turning to unusual tactics to undermine Moscow during Kyiv’s ailing counteroffensive. The Prosecutor General’s Office of Russia said the uptick in bogus calls “coincided in time with the dates of the successful advance of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in the zone of the special military operation,” referring to the Kremlin’s favorite euphemism for the bloody war in Ukraine.

The prosecutor general’s office further alleged that the scammers are being “financed by organizations associated with the Kyiv regime.” Regardless, Russian authorities warn that any Russian citizens who actually obey the scammers’ instructions face serious consequences themselves.

“It should be taken into account that such acts related to arson, explosions, other deliberate destruction and damage to government facilities can be regarded as a terrorist act,” the prosecutor general’s office said. It also reminded citizens that “Russian law enforcement agencies do not involve citizens in assistance through telephone conversations and do not fight crime in illegal ways.”

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