Pavel Lerner, the Russian IT specialist kidnapped by masked men near his Kiev office on Tuesday, has been released after reportedly paying a bitcoin ransom worth more than a million in USD. This sum and payment has not been confirmed. Exmo’s executive was dropped off on a roadside by his attackers and is in a state of shock. The crypto entrepreneur has so far remained silent about the attack, that also shocked many Russians and Ukrainians.
Snatched by Men With Rifles and Balaclavas
“He was freed by his kidnappers”, a police sources told Strana.ua, the Ukrainian website that broke the news about Lerner’s mysterious disappearing. The six attackers were armed with assault rifles and were wearing balaclavas. They dragged Lerner into a van in broad daylight on a main street in the Ukrainian capital, security officials added. The vehicle, a black Mercedes-Benz, had stolen registration plates. Friends of the Russian businessman reported him missing after he stopped taking phone calls on December 26.
The blockchain expert has been released after paying a ransom of more than $1m in bitcoins, a high-ranking Ukrainian official revealed [Editor’s note: this piece of info has not been confirmed]. “He was kidnapped by an armed gang for the purpose of extorting bitcoins”, Anton Gerashchenko, advisor to the Ukrainian interior minister, told the Financial Times. He described the attack as a “bitcoin kidnapping” and revealed “operative information” about the amount Lerner had paid for his freedom. Local and Russian media quote other sources claiming that the abductors simply got scared by the wide coverage and decided to let him go.
Shock and Awe in Russia and Ukraine
Pavel Lerner’s kidnapping has stunned crypto communities in both Russia and Ukraine where he has several businesses operating mining facilities and working on blockchain development projects. Exmo Finance LLP, the UK registered company he is working for, is a leading cryptocurrency exchange in the post-Soviet space, popular for processing Russian ruble transactions. Exmo has almost 95,000 active users and has hosted trading of $125m worth of bitcoin in a single day, BBC and FT reported. According to its website, more than 996 000 people in 200 countries have used its services.
With authorities reluctant to officially disclose details during an ongoing investigation, Lerner’s disappearing has prompted media speculations of a possible detention, a new “Vinnik case”. Alexander Vinnik is another Russian national with cryptocurrency background that has attracted a lot of media attention. He was arrested in Greece earlier this year on accusations of money laundering and other criminal activities through the now defunct BTC-e exchange, supposedly operated by him. US officials believe Vinnik is responsible for laundering $4 billion worth of bitcoin stolen in the Mt. Gox hack and have requested his extradition. He is also wanted by authorities in Russia where he is charged with stealing funds worth $10,000 USD.
Radio Silence After Lerner’s Release
But the “Vinnik scenario” is unlikely in Lerner’s case, as the 40-year-old Russian entrepreneur has never tried to hide his association with crypto businesses in several European countries – he has also resided in Poland and Spain. Initial media reports described him as the managing director of Exmo and according to his Linkedin profile he is the CEO of the British company running the exchange. In a statement, Exmo referred to him as “leading analyst” and “blockchain expert who leads an array of personal startup projects not related to the operations of the platform”.
Last week the UK-based cryptocurrency exchange posted that it had been targeted by cyber attackers. After Lerner’s abduction, the company asked for any information that could lead to finding him. It also addressed customers’ concerns stating that Pavel’s activity did not involve access to their financial assets and personal data. The exchange continued its operations despite the alleged kidnapping.
Pavel Lerner is yet to speak publically about his abduction. Attempts to contact him after his release have been unsuccessful. Ukrainian media believe he has decided to remain silent following instructions by the security services. “At the moment he is safe, and there was no physical harm inflicted on him. Nevertheless, Pavel is currently in a state of major stress, therefore, he will not provide any official comments in the coming days”, Exmo said in a statement published on its website.