National Crime Agency

Who is Tech Investor John Bernard?

John Bernard, the subject of a story here last week about a self-proclaimed millionaire investor who has bilked countless tech startups, appears to be a pseudonym for John Clifton Davies, a U.K. man who absconded from justice before being convicted on multiple counts of fraud in 2015. Prior to his conviction, Davies served 16 months in jail before being cleared of murdering his wife on their honeymoon in India.

The Private Office of John Bernard, which advertises itself as a capital investment firm based in Switzerland, has for years been listed on multiple investment sites as the home of a millionaire who made his fortunes in the dot-com boom 20 years ago and who has oodles of cash to invest in tech startups.

But as last week’s story noted, Bernard’s investment company is a bit like a bad slot machine that never pays out. KrebsOnSecurity interviewed multiple investment brokers who all told the same story: After promising to invest millions after one or two phone calls and with little or no pushback, Bernard would insist that companies pay tens of thousands of dollars worth of due diligence fees up front.

However, the due diligence company he insisted on using — another Swiss firm called Inside Knowledge — also was secretly owned by Bernard, who would invariably pull out of the deal after receiving the due diligence money.

Neither Mr. Bernard nor anyone from his various companies responded to multiple requests for comment over the past few weeks. What’s more, virtually all of the employee profiles tied to Bernard’s office have since last week removed those firms from their work experience as listed on their LinkedIn resumes — or else deleted their profiles altogether.

Sometime on Thursday John Bernard’s main website — the-private-office.ch — replaced the content on its homepage with a note saying it was closing up shop.

“We are pleased to announce that we are currently closing The Private Office fund as we have reached our intended investment level and that we now plan to focus on helping those companies we have invested into to grow and succeed,” the message reads.

As noted in last week’s story, the beauty of a scam like the one multiple investment brokers said was being run by Mr. Bernard is that companies bilked by small-time investment schemes rarely pursue legal action, mainly because the legal fees involved can quickly surpass the losses. What’s more, most victims will likely be too ashamed to come forward.

Also, John Bernard’s office typically did not reach out to investment brokers directly. Rather, he had his firm included on a list of angel investors focused on technology companies, so those seeking investments usually came to him.

Finally, multiple sources interviewed for this story said Bernard’s office offered a finders fee for any investment leads that brokers brought his way. While such commissions are not unusual, the amount promised — five percent of the total investment in a given firm that signed an agreement — is extremely generous. However, none of the investment brokers who spoke to KrebsOnSecurity were able to collect those fees, because Bernard’s office never actually consummated any of the deals they referred to him.

PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE EMPTY BOOKSHELVES

After last week’s story ran, KrebsOnSecurity heard from a number of other investment brokers who had near identical experiences with Bernard. Several said they at one point spoke with him via phone or Zoom conference calls, and that he had a distinctive British accent.

When questioned about why his staff was virtually all based in Ukraine when his companies were supposedly in Switzerland, Bernard replied that his wife was Ukrainian and that they were living there to be closer to her family.

One investment broker who recently got into a deal with Bernard shared a screen shot from a recent Zoom call with him. That screen shot shows Bernard bears a striking resemblance to one John Clifton Davies, a 59-year-old from Milton Keynes, a large town in Buckinghamshire, England about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of London.

John Bernard (left) in a recent Zoom call, and a photo of John Clifton Davies from 2015.

In 2015, Mr. Davies was convicted of stealing more than GBP 750,000 from struggling companies looking to restructure their debt. For at least seven years, Davies ran multiple scam businesses that claimed to provide insolvency consulting to distressed companies, even though he was not licensed to do so.

“After gaining the firm’s trust, he took control of their assets and would later pocket the cash intended for creditors,” according to a U.K. news report from 2015. “After snatching the cash, Davies proceeded to spend the stolen money on a life of luxury, purchasing a new upmarket home fitted with a high-tech cinema system and new kitchen.”

Davies disappeared before he was convicted of fraud in 2015. Two years before that, Davies was released from prison after being held in custody for 16 months on suspicion of murdering his new bride in 2004 on their honeymoon in India.

Davies’ former wife Colette Davies, 39, died after falling 80 feet from a viewing point at a steep gorge in the Himachal Pradesh region of India. Mr. Davies was charged with murder and fraud after he attempted to collect GBP 132,000 in her life insurance payout, but British prosecutors ultimately conceded they did not have enough evidence to convict him.

THE SWISS AND UKRAINE CONNECTIONS

While the photos above are similar, there are other clues that suggest the two identities may be the same person. A review of business records tied to Davies’ phony insolvency consulting businesses between 2007 and 2013 provides some additional pointers.

John Clifton Davies’ former listing at the official U.K. business registrar Companies House show his company was registered at the address 26 Dean Forest Way, Broughton, Milton Keynes.

A search on that street address at 4iq.com turns up several interesting results, including a listing for senecaequities.com registered to a John Davies at the email address john888@myswissmail.ch.

A Companies House official record for Seneca Equities puts it at John Davies’ old U.K. address at 26 Dean Forest Way and lists 46-year-old Iryna Davies as a director. “Iryna” is a uniquely Ukrainian spelling of the name Irene (the Russian equivalent is typically “Irina”).

A search on John Clifton Davies and Iryna turned up this 2013 story from The Daily Mirror which says Iryna is John C. Davies’ fourth wife, and that the two were married in 2010.

KrebsOnSecurity sought comment from both the U.K. police district that prosecuted Davies’ case and the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA). Neither wished to comment on the findings. “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation or subjects of interest,” a spokesperson for the NCA said.

New Charges, Sentencing in Satori IoT Botnet Conspiracy

The U.S. Justice Department today charged a Canadian and a Northern Ireland man for allegedly conspiring to build botnets that enslaved hundreds of thousands of routers and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices for use in large-scale distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. In addition, a defendant in the United States was sentenced today to drug treatment and 18 months community confinement for his admitted role in the botnet conspiracy.

Indictments unsealed by a federal court in Alaska today allege 20-year-old Aaron Sterritt from Larne, Northern Ireland, and 31-year-old Logan Shwydiuk of Saskatoon, Canada conspired to build, operate and improve their IoT crime machines over several years.

Prosecutors say Sterritt, using the hacker aliases “Vamp” and “Viktor,” was the brains behind the computer code that powered several potent and increasingly complex IoT botnet strains that became known by exotic names such as “Masuta,” “Satori,” “Okiru” and “Fbot.”

Shwydiuk, a.k.a. “Drake,” “Dingle, and “Chickenmelon,” is alleged to have taken the lead in managing sales and customer support for people who leased access to the IoT botnets to conduct their own DDoS attacks.

A third member of the botnet conspiracy — 22-year-old Kenneth Currin Schuchman of Vancouver, Wash. — pleaded guilty in Sept. 2019 to aiding and abetting computer intrusions in September 2019. Schuchman, whose role was to acquire software exploits that could be used to infect new IoT devices, was sentenced today by a judge in Alaska to 18 months of community confinement and drug treatment, followed by three years of supervised release.

Kenneth “Nexus-Zeta” Schuchman, in an undated photo.

The government says the defendants built and maintained their IoT botnets by constantly scanning the Web for insecure devices. That scanning primarily targeted devices that were placed online with weak, factory default settings and/or passwords. But the group also seized upon a series of newly-discovered security vulnerabilities in these IoT systems — commandeering devices that hadn’t yet been updated with the latest software patches.

Some of the IoT botnets enslaved hundreds of thousands of hacked devices. For example, by November 2017, Masuta had infected an estimated 700,000 systems, allegedly allowing the defendants to launch crippling DDoS attacks capable of hurling 100 gigabits of junk data per second at targets — enough firepower to take down many large websites.

In 2015, then 15-year-old Sterritt was involved in the high-profile hack against U.K. telecommunications provider TalkTalk. Sterritt later pleaded guilty to his part in the intrusion, and at his sentencing in 2018 was ordered to complete 50 hours of community service.

The indictments against Sterritt and Shwydiuk (PDF) do not mention specific DDoS attacks thought to have been carried out with the IoT botnets. In an interview today with KrebsOnSecurity, prosecutors in Alaska declined to discuss any of their alleged offenses beyond building, maintaining and selling the above-mentioned IoT botnets.

But multiple sources tell KrebsOnSecuirty Vamp was principally responsible for the 2016 massive denial-of-service attack that swamped Dyn — a company that provides core Internet services for a host of big-name Web sites. On October 21, 2016, an attack by a Mirai-based IoT botnet variant overwhelmed Dyn’s infrastructure, causing outages at a number of top Internet destinations, including Twitter, Spotify, Reddit and others.

In 2018, authorities with the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA) interviewed a suspect in connection with the Dyn attack, but ultimately filed no charges against the youth because all of his digital devices had been encrypted.

“The principal suspect of this investigation is a UK national resident in Northern Ireland,” reads a June 2018 NCA brief on their investigation into the Dyn attack (PDF), dubbed Operation Midmonth. “In 2018 the subject returned for interview, however there was insufficient evidence against him to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.”

The login prompt for Nexus Zeta’s IoT botnet included the message “Masuta is powered and hosted on Brian Kreb’s [sic] 4head.” To be precise, it’s a 5head.

The unsealing of the indictments against Sterritt and Shwydiuk came just minutes after Schuchman was sentenced today. Schuchman has been confined to an Alaskan jail for the past 13 months, and Chief U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess today ordered the sentence of 18 months community confinement to begin Aug. 1.

Community confinement in Schuchman’s case means he will spend most or all of that time in a drug treatment program. In a memo (PDF) released prior to Schuchman’s sentencing today, prosecutors detailed the defendant’s ongoing struggle with narcotics, noting that on multiple occasions he was discharged from treatment programs after testing positive for Suboxone — which is used to treat opiate addiction and is sometimes abused by addicts — and for possessing drug contraband.

The government’s sentencing memo also says Schuchman on multiple occasions absconded from pretrial supervision, and went right back to committing the botnet crimes for which he’d been arrested — even communicating with Sterritt about the details of the ongoing FBI investigation.

“Defendant’s performance on pretrial supervision has been spectacularly poor,” prosecutors explained. “Even after being interviewed by the FBI and put on restrictions, he continued to create and operate a DDoS botnet.”

Prosecutors told the judge that when he was ultimately re-arrested by U.S. Marshals, Schuchman was found at a computer in violation of the terms of his release. In that incident, Schuchman allegedly told his dad to trash his computer, before successfully encrypting his hard drive (which the Marshals service is still trying to decrypt). According to the memo, the defendant admitted to marshals that he had received and viewed videos of “juveniles engaged in sex acts with other juveniles.”

“The circumstances surrounding the defendant’s most recent re-arrest are troubling,” the memo recounts. “The management staff at the defendant’s father’s apartment complex, where the defendant was residing while on abscond status, reported numerous complaints against the defendant, including invitations to underage children to swim naked in the pool.”

Adam Alexander, assistant US attorney for the district of Alaska, declined to say whether the DOJ would seek extradition of Sterritt and Shwydiuk. Alexander said the success of these prosecutions is highly dependent on the assistance of domestic and international law enforcement partners, as well as a list of private and public entities named at the conclusion of the DOJ’s press release on the Schuchman sentencing (PDF).

However, a DOJ motion (PDF) to seal the case records filed back in September 2019 says the government is in fact seeking to extradite the defendants.

Chief Judge Burgess was the same magistrate who presided over the 2018 sentencing of the co-authors of Mirai, a highly disruptive IoT botnet strain whose source code was leaked online in 2016 and was built upon by the defendants in this case. Both Mirai co-authors were sentenced to community service and home confinement thanks to their considerable cooperation with the government’s ongoing IoT botnet investigations.

Asked whether he was satisfied with the sentence handed down against Schuchman, Alexander maintained it was more than just another slap on the wrist, noting that Schuchman has waived his right to appeal the conviction and faces additional confinement of two years if he absconds again or fails to complete his treatment.

“In every case the statutory factors have to do with the history of the defendants, who in these crimes tend to be extremely youthful offenders,” Alexander said. “In this case, we had a young man who struggles with mental health and really pronounced substance abuse issues. Contrary to what many people might think, the goal of the DOJ in cases like this is not to put people in jail for as long as possible but to try to achieve the best balance of safeguarding communities and affording the defendant the best possible chance of rehabilitation.”

William Walton, supervisory special agent for the FBI’s cybercrime investigation division in Anchorage, Ala., said he hopes today’s indictments and sentencing send a clear message to what he described as a relatively insular and small group of individuals who are still building, running and leasing IoT-based botnets to further a range of cybercrimes.

“One of the things we hope in our efforts here and in our partnerships with our international partners is when we identify these people, we want very much to hold them to account in a just but appropriate way,” Walton said. “Hopefully, any associates who are aspiring to fill the vacuum once we take some players off the board realize that there are going to be real consequences for doing that.”