California man who sold bank data to Russians sentenced to one year

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A California man who says he unwittingly helped Russia conduct a disinformation campaign on social media before the 2016 U.S. presidential election has been sentenced to six months in prison and another six months of home confinement after pleading guilty to a single count of identity fraud earlier this year.

Richard Pinedo, 28, of Santa Paula, California, received his sentence on Wednesday after admitting in February to selling bank account numbers so his clients could circumvent security features on electronic payment services including PayPal. Since then, he's been cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian interference in the election and has turned over business records and testified before a grand jury.

Among Pinedo's customers were Russians indicted by Mueller for engaging in a wide-ranging effort to influence the election via social media and staged public events. They bought stolen bank account information from Pinedo — who had acquired it from other online sources — then wielded it to sign up for online payment services that require users to have a verifiable bank account for identity confirmation.

"I take full responsibility for what I have done," Pinedo told U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich in Washington before she imposed the sentence. He told the court that he'd previously led a quiet life and merely wanted to work in the computer industry.

Since being charged, he said, his life has been turned "completely upside down." Pinedo told the court he's been subjected to online threats from those who criticize him for helping the Russians and from those who object to his helping Mueller. Some of those people have warned him that Russian agents may try to poison him if he leaves the U.S.

"Every knock at the door now comes with anxiety," Pinedo said.

Appearing in court on Wednesday, prosecutors gave Pinedo credit for being immediately forthright about what he'd done and for providing them with information they didn't have previously. But they didn't ask the judge to reduce the sentence to below the 12 to 18 months spelled out in federal sentencing guidelines.

Prosecutors say Pinedo earned between $40,000 and $95,000 from his dealing in the stolen data between 2014 and the end of 2017. Precisely how many people's accounts were used by the Russians is not known.

"I can tell that you're genuinely remorseful," Friedrich told Pinedo before punishing him. She called him "a bright, capable young man" and encouraged him to complete his computer science studies after his incarceration is complete.

In college, Pinedo started helping people he knew conduct business on EBay, according to court papers. After navigating a payment processing dispute with PayPal, he started an online business he named Auction Essistance, intending to help others encountering payment difficulty.

During this time he learned of the availability of supposedly anonymous bank account information he could acquire and use to verify PayPal accounts and became a middleman in procuring that data and selling it to others, according to prosecutors. That included the Russians.

In addition to prison and home confinement, Pinedo received two years of supervised release and 100 hours of community service.

Thirteen Russian individuals and three businesses are accused of executing the election trolling scheme, using Facebook, Twitter and other social media to distribute provocative posts on divisive political issues. They also allegedly bought ads, coordinated with unwitting Trump campaign workers and paid U.S. activists to plan rallies. Mueller Shows How Russians Sowed Discord With Dirty Tricks Among those charged is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a man so close to Russian President Vladimir Putin he's known as "Putin's chef."

Only one defendant has answered the charges in court, Prigozhin's Concord Management and Consulting LLC. Through its attorney, the company has pleaded not guilty.

The case is U.S. v. Pinedo, 18-cr-24, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

Bloomberg News