Russia has been using sham websites to obtain the personal information of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and their family members, U.S. defense officials say, in what they believe is an attempt to detain the family members who are living in occupied Ukraine and deport them to Russia.
Two U.S. defense officials say a Russian information warfare unit has created at least two phishing websites, WarTears.org and ForeignCombatants.ru, that are posing as support websites for friends and family members of missing, captured or fallen Ukrainian soldiers.
Petro Yatsenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, confirmed to VOA that the two websites are scams. He said there are dozens of similar phishing websites that try to collect data from the families.
“They exploit the extremely vulnerable relatives and loved ones of missing or captured servicemen … [using] the fact that Russia does not provide Ukraine with information about those they hold in captivity,” Yatsenko told VOA. “Relatives hope that their loved one is not dead but is imprisoned, so they provide their personal data.”
One of the websites, WarTears.org, claims to have records of more than 170,000 Ukrainian soldiers in its database.
U.S. defense officials say they believe that Russia is using the names, phone numbers and addresses of Ukrainians obtained through these sites to determine whether any of the soldiers and their family members are living inside Russian-occupied territories.
Those living in occupied territories can be found, screened, detained and deported to Russia, according to the officials.
“That’s quite alarming,” said retired U.S. Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton, who spent more than two decades as an intelligence officer, “but it also shows the thoroughness of their [Russia’s] data collection capabilities and their willingness to exploit these vulnerabilities.”
Last September, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said estimates from a range of sources, including the Russian government, indicated that Russian authorities have interrogated and forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainians. Russia has denied the claim.
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Yatsenko said Russia’s FSB, the main successor of the Soviet Union’s KGB security agency, has used the personal information obtained from sites like these to extort information about Ukrainian POWs.
“By providing such information, people may unknowingly worsen the situation of their loved ones who are in captivity,” he said.
Applying personal pressure on people is a “very typical” Russian tactic used since Stalinist times, Leighton said.
“This is a refinement to that. This is definitely taking it to a new level,” he told VOA.
The sites were believed to have been created shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. U.S. defense officials say they became aware of the two sites this summer.
Not all of the phishing sites identified by the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine are from the Russian government, according to Yatsenko. Some of the fake websites are created by fraudsters trying to extort money from Ukrainians in a vulnerable position.
“They promise communication, delivery of parcels, and then engage in blackmail, saying the prisoner will be beaten if relatives don’t send money,” he said. “In 99% of cases, behind these channels are people who have no relation to the prisoners and have zero information about them.”
To find out more information on missing family members, Yatsenko said, Ukrainians should contact only official government sources. The Ukrainian government’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War can be reached at +38 (044) 390 43 90 or 0 800 300 529, Monday-Friday between the local hours of 0900-1700.