Bengaluru: A year-old case involving a notorious high-profile hacker and his tryst with Bitcoin and cybercrimes has come back to life in Karnataka with possible political ramifications.
The bitcoin ‘scam’, that the Bengaluru Cyber Crime Police stumbled on during investigations in a drugs case in 2020, has put the spotlight back on the Basavaraj Bommai-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka with the state government handing over different aspects of the case to specific investigative agencies besides their own. The CBI, too, have been approached but they are yet to take it up.
The prime accused in the case — Srikrishna Ramesh alias Sriki — is a 25-year-old who is being investigated currently by three different departments, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), Cyber Crimes wing of Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Central Crime Branch (CCB) of Bengaluru police.
Sriki, who is out on bail, faces several charges of cyber fraud, drug peddling via dark net, theft of cryptocurrency and even stealing money from Karnataka government’s e-governance portal.
Leader of opposition in Karnataka Legislative Assembly, Siddaramiah, resurrected the bitcoin ‘scam’ Wednesday alleging the BJP government of a “coverup” .
“There is information about the involvement of influential politicians of Karnataka in Drugs & Bitcoin scam. It is concerning that the investigating officers are trying to close the case to help those politicians. @BJP4India govt should not use their power to divert the investigation. They should ensure that the guilty is punished,” Siddaramaiah tweeted pulling the veil off of a controversy.
CM Bommai and Home Minister Araga Jnanendra have denied Siddaramiah’s charges.
“There is no question of hiding anything or anyone. No matter how influential a person is, if Siddaramaiah can provide an iota of evidence to back his claim, we will investigate. We referred the bitcoin and money laundering case to ED in March 2021 and hacking cases to Interpol wing of CBI in April 2021 while our crime branch is investigating the drugs case,” an irate Bommai told reporters on Friday in Bengaluru dismissing allegations that his government was attempting to bury the case. .
What is the bitcoin scam about?
In November 2020, Bengaluru’s Central Crime Branch police arrested Srikrishna and his associates in a narcotics case. Sriki was accused of procuring drugs using bitcoins via darknet and peddling it to his high profile clients.
Further investigations revealed that Srikrishna was also a hacker who indulged in cybercrimes like ransomware attacks, hacking into bitcoin exchanges, looting cryptocurrency, money laundering and cyber frauds.
The biggest revelation was that in 2019, he was involved in the alleged hacking of the Karnataka government’s E-procurement portal following which funds were siphoned off illegally via unauthorised transactions to unrelated accounts.
The alleged hacking was first discovered in July 2019 by a financial consultant, S.K. Shailaja. While verifying Earnest Money Deposits (EMD) refunds, she came across Rs 7.37 crore unauthorized fund transfers after which a complaint was filed with the CID. Investigations revealed that Rs 1.05 crore was illegally transferred to a firm in Uttar Pradesh — in all, a total of Rs 11.55 crore had been siphoned off from the Karnataka government.
It was only in November 2020 when Srikrishna was arrested in the narcotics case that the police learnt that he was actually the mastermind behind the alleged hacking.
The ED was approached in March 2021 to probe money laundering charges. In August, the ED in a press release said Rs 1.44 crores lying in 14 bank accounts had been provisionally attached as part of investigation in this case.
“During the money laundering investigation, it is revealed that a hacker namely Srikrishna alias Sriki had hacked the Portal of Centre for E-Governance, Government of Karnataka and funds to the tune of Rs 10.5 Crore and Rs 1.05 Crore were diverted to bank accounts of NGO, M/s. Uday Grama Vikash Sanstha, Nagpur and Proprietorship, M/s. Nimmi Enterprises, Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh respectively,” ED said in its statement.
During interrogation in the narcotics case, the CCB claimed to have recovered 31 bitcoin valued at Rs 9 crore from Srikrishna. This claim was later retracted.
Congress leaders in Karnataka have, however, alleged that transactions of up to Rs 10,000 crore in bitcoins involving Srikrishna may have taken place. “Fingers are being pointed at several political leaders. There have been attempts to close the case. We hear the Prime Minister’s Office has sought details of the case,” alleged Ramalinga Reddy, KPCC Working President and Former Home Minister, Thursday.
The allegation comes from murmurs within the BJP and RSS of a possible scam involving big names of the party’s state leadership.
“Even when he was in police custody in 2020, he had access to a bitcoin repository in Singapore. Transactions that took place then are in question,” a senior serving police officer in the know of the case details, told ThePrint.
CM Bommai Friday spoke to the media outside his residence about insinuations against him and his government. He, however, did not respond to questions on whether the Prime Minister’s office had indeed sought a report on the cases involving Srikrishna but insisted he is being targeted for his ‘war on drugs’ campaign that he declared as Home Minister.
“There are hush-hush allegations that thousands of crores of illegal transactions have happened. Is there evidence? One shouldn’t fly a kite without strings. We will not spare anyone involved. Let those making allegations provide an iota of evidence into these transactions and between whom they took place,” said the CM.
Bommai was Home Minister in 2020 when Srikrishna was arrested, the reason he has come under severe fire from within and outside the party, sources in the BJP suggest.
The Congress, meanwhile, has sought a judicial inquiry in the matter.
Who is Srikrishna alias Sriki
A hacker accused of multiple cybercrime and drug peddling charges, Srikrishna first appeared on the police radar in 2015.
“He was arrested in connection with a bank account hacking case in 2015 and was granted bail quickly,” a senior police officer who was previously posted in CID told The Print adding that “not being monitored after the case emboldened him”.
In February 2018, Srikrishna was named one of the accused in a pub brawl case involving Shantinagar MLA and Congress leader N.A. Haris’ son Mohammed Nalapad Haris. Srikrishna was charged with attempt to murder as one of the aides of Nalapad but went absconding. While the rest of the accused went to jail, Srikrishna was at large till the time he got anticipatory bail. Police could not trace him since he didn’t use a mobile phone.
“Had the then Congress government arrested him in the pub brawl case and investigated thoroughly in 2018, they would have learnt of his illegal activities,” Bommai told reporters in response to Siddaramaiah’s allegations.
While he ducked the police in the 2018 pub brawl case, Srikrishna was arrested in 2020 opening up a Pandora’s box of murky cyber crimes. “He is distant from his family. He does not have any intimate relationships. His focus is making money and consuming drugs. He is hired for his expertise in cyber crime by influential people. Unfortunately for them, he creates a detailed digital track of every exchange and interaction with them. If he goes down, he will take everyone down with him,” an officer who has interrogated Srikrishna in a cyber crime case told ThePrint.