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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Star Student Fantasized of Easy Money via the 'Net

In early 1998, Moscow Conservatory student Ilya Hoffman sat at home suffering from one of his frequent asthma bouts. Too weak to practice his viola, he entertained himself by surfing the Internet. There he came across a site that described how to "make money from the air,"according to his father, Leonid Hoffman, a composer. The young Hoffman, 21, was used to playing mental games since he was mostly home-bound from various respiratory illnesses and allergies. The idea of concocting a scheme to move money around on the Internet appealed to him as magically easy, "like in a fairy tale," he wrote to his father from the Matrosskaya Tishina detention center in Moscow, where he is currently awaiting trial.

Hoffman quickly grew from an Internet novice to what Alexei Isaikin, head of the Moscow police's computer crime unit, calls "a full-blown hacker with a potential to become a huge headache." Between March and September of 1998, police say Hoffman pilfered about $98,000 through fraudulent credit card purchases via the Internet. Hoffman's lawyers admit that their client arranged the transactions. If convicted, he faces a possible 10-year sentence for fraud. Hoffman f who passes the time solving mathematical problems and composing music f is suffering from pneumonia in a cell that is quarantined for measles, according to the lawyers.

Several leading cultural and political figures say putting Hoffman behind bars is a waste of tremendous talent and are calling for his release. They include Russia's chief rabbi Adolf Shayevich, head of the State Duma security committee Viktor Ilyukhin and prominent violinist Yury Bashmet. "Ilya Hoffman is not only one of the best students of my class, but also one of the best young viola players in Moscow," Bashmet wrote, in a letter of support. "It's necessary ? to preserve his talent for the sake of Russian culture." The student's grief-stricken father says, "the state has robbed me of my son. ? No one will benefit if the country loses him."

Hoffman's plan emerged from a chat-room where the viola student, who went by the web name "Net Serpent," conferred with other like-minded people eager to make some easy money. Police have so far arrested six of Hoffman's alleged accomplices. Using cracking software, Hoffman broke into the accounting program of an Internet shop in Canada called Virtualinks and copied it into his own system. Police say he then charged various purchases to credit card numbers taken at random from the shop's database; only he arranged to have the payments go to accounts specified by him, rather than to that of Virtualinks. By the end of the summer, Hoffman and his associates had moved a total of $98,000 to Avtobank and Rossiisky Credit Bank in Moscow and to two banks in Lithuania, according to police.

Hoffman's group managed to withdraw about $43,000 from the banks' ATM machines, according to police investigator Alexander Gabyshev, before suspicious Virtualinks clients began voiding payments and a criminal investigation was launched. Moscow police arrested one of the suspected cohorts, 19-year-old student Vladimir Voznesensky, as he was trying to withdraw cash at an ATM machine, and later detained another associate, Artyom Fidelman, also a student. The two had already spent much of their money lavishly, buying Versace clothes, guns and cellular phones and dining in posh restaurants.

Voznesensky and Fidelman told police that Net Serpent was the brains behind the scam. In a sting operation, Fidelman called Hoffman and told him money was drying up after the August financial collapse and proposed a meeting to hand over the cash reaped so far. Police arrested Hoffman on Sept. 8, when he showed up for the designated meeting on Volokolamskoye Shosse, not far from his home. All seven members of the group f Hoffman and six others f were released in exchange for written promises not to leave town. But police detained Hoffman again in November for allegedly destroying evidence and attempting to silence his associates.

Hoffman's lawyer, Alisa Turova, argues that her client didn't realize the consequences of what he was doing when he typed in the commands to move money around. "We are talking about people who would never lay their hands on someone's pocket or rob an apartment," Turova says. "But on the Internet, everything is abstract. It's not clear who suffers from their actions. They don't even realize that what they do is a crime." Hoffman's fairy tale plan now has all the makings of a horror story.