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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Police Unravel Metro Swindle

Moscow police say they have broken up a large network of swindlers who raked in millions of dollars by making and selling counterfeit metro and bus tickets -- the biggest fraud scheme ever to strike the city transportation system.

After a six-month investigation, 15 alleged ringleaders were arrested earlier this month and charged with fraud, and more arrests are to come, said Filipp Zolotnitsky, a spokesman for the police directorate fighting economic crime.

Interpol was asked to help track the suspects' ties in Eastern Europe, where the fake bus tickets were printed, Zolotnitsky said, without specifying the countries.

During the investigation, police identified more than 300 people who were selling the ring's counterfeit wares, including several official ticket sellers in metro stations, dozens of bus and trolleybus drivers and also inspectors, who gave fake receipts to passengers they fined for not having a ticket, he said.

These sellers led investigators to the ringleaders and will serve as witnesses in the trial, Zolotnitsky said.

"It was a closed-cycle business: Drivers sold fake tickets, and inspectors obliged to detect them kept mum because they had fake receipts in their pockets," he said.

The probe began in February, when the computerized ticket-tracking system of the Moscow metro detected an extraordinary rise in the number of counterfeit tickets being used by passengers.

"Every ticket has its own number, and if the system installed in the gates of metro stations detects two different tickets with one number or a ticket with a nonexistent number it puts them on a stop-list," explained Konstantin Cherkassky, a spokesman for the Moscow metro.

It does not happen immediately, however, and the counterfeit ticket can be used several times, he said.

Police investigators began by questioning ticket sellers, who helped them unravel the fraud scheme. Zolotnitsky said it functioned as follows:

Women who cleaned and kept watch over the metro collected used tickets from the waste bins and sold them by the bagload to the swindlers for petty sums of several dozen rubles.

The swindlers tore the magnetic strips off the used tickets and glued them to new ones, printed at a Moscow-based printing house. Then they re-magnetized the strips and sold the ready-to-use tickets to distributors.

The cost of producing one ticket was less than 1 ruble, and the swindlers sold them to distributors for 8 rubles. The tickets, for two rides, cost 10 rubles.

When police raided an apartment rented by one of the alleged leaders of the criminal group, they seized 1 million tickets, of which 400,000 were ready for use, Zolotnitsky said.

Police believe that for more than two years the group sold no fewer than 1 million tickets per month, he said, estimating that the damage to the Moscow metro may have totaled as much as $8 million.

The damage incurred by Mosgortrans, the city-owned public transportation agency that runs the buses and trolleybuses, was no less, the police spokesman said.

The main distributors of the fake bus tickets that were printed in Eastern Europe were bus drivers, he said.

At one of 24 apartments raided on Aug. 6, police said they seized 700,000 uncut sheets of bus tickets, with each sheet containing numerous tickets. Police arrested 12 people in the Aug. 6 raids and three more at a later date.

The nucleus of the group was led by natives of Abkhazia and included ethnic Azeris, Georgians, Ukrainians and Russians, Zolotnitsky said.

They lived quietly so as not to attract attention and changed apartments every three months, he added.

A considerable share of the group's income went to a so-called obshchak, or emergency fund, which was kept in Abkhazia, Zolotnitsky said. Police have failed to seize it and suspect it could be worth $5 million, he said. Such funds are typically used to pay bribes and defend those who get arrested.

In the raids, police seized 200,000 rubles (about $6,350) and diamond and emerald jewelry, which police are still assessing but may be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

If convicted in the fraud case, the defendants could face up to 10 years in prison. Investigators need several months before they will be ready to bring the case to trial, Zolotnitsky said.

The Moscow metro has had a long battle with fraud. In the early 1990s, when plastic tokens were used, police seized truckloads of counterfeit tokens that had been produced at button factories, Cherkassky said.

When tickets with the magnetic strip were introduced, some "clever" passengers used Scotch tape to cover half of the magnetic strip (making it narrower). After using the ticket, they removed the tape and used it again. The metro then had to adjust the gate scanning devices so that they would read information only from the fully exposed strip, Cherkassky said.

These were just some of the tricks that have been used to cheat the metro. But the centralized computerized system, which helped expose the fraud network, has helped raise the metro's revenues by 20 percent in the four years since it was introduced, he said.

Police have released the names of only some of those arrested in the fraud scheme: Lyudmila Afonina, 44; Alkhan Babayev, 30; Muzodil Babayev, 38; Vasily Kanalosh, 40; Larisa Kharchilava, 21; Vyacheslav Kozlov, 30; Vadadi Mamedov, 42; and Konstantin Silidi, 40.