Russian Premium. Telegram bots used for donations and purchasing paid accounts linked to a Russian businessman
Дмитрий Трещанин|Александр Бородихин
Russian Premium. Telegram bots used for donations and purchasing paid accounts linked to a Russian businessman

Art: Mari Msukanidze / Mediazona

In the summer of 2021, the @donate bot emerged in Telegram messaging app, allowing channel owners to easily collect donations from readers. Many channel owners gradually adopted it. A year later, after the war in Ukraine had begun, Telegram started offering Premium accounts, but it was impossible to pay for them from Russia due to sanctions, so @PremiumBot emerged, allowing to bypass the restrictions. Both bots give the impression of being affiliated with the service administration, so users trust them with their data. Mediazona decided to take a closer look at the bots and discovered that both are formally affiliated not with Telegram, but with the Kazan-based entrepreneur Dmitry Yeremeyev.

“It’s a pity I started all this in the first place. I gave my data to some jackasses,” journalist Farida Rustamova laments. In October 2021, she resigned from the Dozhd TV channel (TV Rain), and after the war began, she launched her own blog about politics, Faridaily. With the expectation of collecting donations from readers, she tried to connect the @donate bot to her Telegram channel—which looked like an official bot from the service’s administration.

“They request a passport,” says the journalist. “And a photo, and a 3D one at that.” Despite providing the necessary documents, her registration was denied. Other journalists covering politics in Russia, such as Republic’s editor-in-chief Dmitry Kolezev and Meduza editor Alexei Kovalev, faced similar rejections.

In response to Mediazona’s inquiry about these refusals, Telegram spokesman Richard Bertie stated, “Currently, Telegram does not offer an official way to collect donations from channel subscribers.” He added, “Bots on the platform, such as @donate, have nothing to do with Telegram. They have their own owners, teams, and policies.”

The bot administration also responded to the situation, stressing that the service is not affiliated with Telegram and “only uses the platform’s extensive bot creation capabilities.”

“As an independent service, we set our own rules and requirements for authors. Since its creation, there is a clause in the policy regarding the content of authors: does not contain propaganda of certain political beliefs, as well as negative or critical statements about politics,” the administration said in a statement.

These restrictions are said to be due to compliance with “the rules of the payment providers that serve us.”

One of these providers is evidently Smart Glocal. Anyone who tries to transfer money through the @donate bot enters into a user agreement with this company.

Smart Glocal handles more than just donations to Telegram channel creators. When paid Premium subscription appeared in Telegram in late June, users from Russia were unable to pay for it: after the start of the war, Visa and Mastercard stopped servicing cards issued in Russia; Apple’s ApplePay also left the country. Subsequently, @PremiumBot emerged in Telegram, enabling users to pay for the subscription without any restrictions, and even at a significant discount—299 instead of 449 rubles through the App Store.

Reports about the new bot immediately started surfacing on websites covering tech news. When paying, the bot warns that it is not affiliated with Telegram in any way, but there there’s no fraud—the account indeed gets upgraded to Premium. A warning pops up that the data will be stored by Smart Glocal.

A false trail to China

Smart Glocal’s full name is Smart Glocal Services Limited and it is registered in Hong Kong. According to an extract from the Hong Kong Companies Registry, the company is wholly owned by entrepreneur Kino Kwok.

The company was originally registered to a “professional” nominee from Cyprus, Svilen Spasov, and was taken over by Kino Kwok in May 2021. Source: Hong Kong Companies Registry

Kino Kwok has repeatedly been mentioned as a manager of various Chinese payment networks. In 2015, Yandex, a Russian IT giant, announced its cooperation with the online trading platform TradeEase, which planned to “attract about 100 thousand customers from Russia in the first months of operation and 1 million customers by the end of the year.” TradeEase was said to have been created “thanks to a bank of China, the government of Suifenhe and the Chinese payment service PayEase.”

The press release has now been removed, but a copy has survived in the Web Archive and on the RBC website. The publication noted at the time that Kino Kwok was the CEO of PayEase. The data from the Chinese and British commercial registries also attest to the same. But it is not the Chinese who are behind Smart Glocal.

Offshore transfers

The archived version of Smart Glocal’s website indicates that the service has two administrators: Hong Kong-based Smart Glocal Services Limited itself and Cyprus-based Tapicash Limited.

The second company is directly connected with Russia: it is listed as the administrator of ePN, an “affiliate marketing” service offering collaborations with large online stores, monetization of site traffic and social networks, earnings from reviews and referral programs. In addition, Tapicash Limited owns AE Platform and the Backit cashback service.

Tapicash Limited itself, according to the extract from the company register of Cyprus, belongs to another offshore company, Jersey-based Tapiworld Limited. The latter, in turn, according to the registers, owns ePN trademarks.

131 amazing coincidences

“Since March, all bank card payments from the Russian segment go through Russian payment partners (previously they were made through global acquiring). This also imposes a requirement on the content for which payments are accepted by bank cards,” read a statement from the administration of the @donate bot, released after the refusal to let Russian journalists collect donations.

Processed by the Bank 131 payment system. Source: Mediazona

Mediazona confirmed that this is indeed true: payments from Visa and Mastercard cards issued in Russia are still processed by the bot, and in some cases they go through Bank 131, registered in Kazan, Tatarstan.

In addition to the @donate and @PremiumBot bots, the Smart Glocal service has another payment gateway, for businesses such as bot developers. In early May, Telegram announced in a single message that Smart Glocal had joined the service’s ecosystem along with another payment provider, Bank 131.

The overlap between the two companies doesn’t end there: in their developer documentation, Smart Glocal and Bank 131 have the same Google Analytics and Yandex.Metrika identifiers.

The developer documentation matches verbatim. For example, using the Diffchecker service, we can compare the two descriptions of refunds process: we can see that only the names of organizations and the currency (rubles and dollars, respectively) change.

A recipient of funds from the @donate bot who requested anonymity provided Mediazona with a statement of incoming funds. According to this individual, the money is transferred twice a month, “like a salary,” with the service charging a commission of 5 to 10%. The statement reveals that the funds originated from an organization registered in Cyprus, Tapic/, which represents Tapicash Limited, also registered in Cyprus, and its partner structure, Smart Glocal.

The service connected to Tapicash, ePN, and Bank 131 all share the same founder: Dmitry Eremeev, a Russian entrepreneur from Kazan.

Who is Dmitry Yeremeev

“In mid-May 2018, an embankment in the heart of Kazan was cordoned off. Within a day, a giant tent-restaurant was constructed there, complete with a red carpet leading up to its entrance. The red carpet was necessary, as the celebration attracted well-known businessmen like Sergey Solonin, co-owner of the Qiwi payment network, celebrities such as film director Timur Bekmambetov, and officials including Kazan’s mayor, Ilsur Metshin. The occasion was Dmitry Yeremeev’s 35th birthday, a local businessman and owner of Kazan’s first Tesla car,” The Bell wrote in its article about the “slum banker.”

Yeremeev was born in Kazan and grew up in a spalniy rayon, one of the massive Soviet-era neighborhoods filled with affordable residential housing. However, he graduated from one of the elite local schools, Physics and Mathematics Lyceum #131. In honor of this school, he would later name his bank. Yeremeev began his career by “hacking Google algorithms,” or simply engaging in search engine optimization, SEO.

“I know some people in the market believe that I almost hacked Google servers—but that’s not true. I’ve never done any hacking. I was just conducting hundreds, thousands of experiments, finding loopholes in search algorithms, and exploiting them,” the entrepreneur told The Bell.

In the early 2000s, he earned his first million dollars. Around this time, he also met the Durov brothers and claims to have helped their newly launched Vkontakte (VK) social media website with SEO: “We discussed SEO, and then I went to St. Petersburg to meet with Pavel and Nikolai Durov personally. At that time, VKontakte wasn’t getting enough traffic. I showed them how to set up SEO so that the site would grow: previously, when you searched for a certain name, Facebook was at the top of the search results, and afterwards, VKontakte moved up.”

Dmitry Yeremeev. Photo: Alexander Miridonov / Kommersant

Later, when search engines began banning certain SEO methods, Yeremeev founded a “complex structure comprising a dozen non-transparent and loosely connected companies” as part of the FIX group, including ePN. According to Yeremeev, his partners included AliExpress, Tinkoff Bank, Group, Beru (Yandex and Sber’s joint marketplace effort), Svyaznoy, and M.Video.

Early in his career, Yeremeev encountered a problem: he could make money online, but it was extremely difficult to access it in Russia. Banking and payment systems lagged behind reality, he told The Bell, and a new approach was needed to handle millions of microtransactions. This led the entrepreneur to the idea of launching his own bank.

In 2019, Bank 131 became the first entity to receive a banking license in Russia in four years. It was launched amid the crisis of Tatarstan’s banking infrastructure and the arrests of heads of credit institutions.

According to The Bell, acquaintances of Yeremeev revealed that he was an investor in Pavel Durov’s cryptocurrency project, Toncoin. Yeremeev, however, refused to comment on this claim at the time and denied his involvement in Telegram in correspondence with Mediazona.

Yeremeev was also the first investor in Day One Ventures, a California-based venture capital fund of Masha Bucher, née Drokova. Drokova is a former prominent member of Nashi, a jingoistic pro-Kremlin youth movement. She told Thrive Global that Yeremeev became both an investor and a mentor to her.

Drokova reportedly helped promote Toncoin to Western audiences, though she insisted her name not be publicly associated with the project, claiming she was only helping out of friendship. When asked about his investments in Drokova's ventures, Yeremeev responded, "I have great respect for Masha, so I wouldn't like to comment on any investments without her consent or participation.

Drokova also played a role in promoting the Toncoin cryptocurrency to a Western audience, as remembered by a Mediazona source who is knowledgeable about the cryptocurrency market. “Back then, Drokova insisted that her name shouldn’t be publicly associated with this project, emphasizing that she was just helping the team as a friend,” the source further explains.

When asked about his investments in Drokova’s ventures, Yeremeev responded, “I have great respect for Masha, so I wouldn’t like to comment on any investments without her consent or participation.”

The team confirmed this to me.”

Dmitry Yeremeev, in correspondence with Mediazona, denies ownership of the @donate bot but admits to knowing the team and actively assisting them while considering various partnership options.

Yeremeev confirmed that Jersey-based Tapiworld is affiliated with his ePN project, and that the @donate bot’s funds are transferred through a Cyprus-based Tapicash. He explained that Smart Glocal has an agreement with Tapicash, allowing payments to European recipients via the Visa/Mastercard payment systems.

He further stated that all payment data for Russian users goes through Smart Glocal, which stores the data in compliance with Hong Kong laws. Personal data of donation recipients is stored by another entity, subject to EU legal requirements. Yeremeev identified SumSub, a biometrics business in Europe, as his company’s KYC contractor that processes data within the European Union’s jurisdiction.

When asked about the processing of client payments within Russia and potential involvement of his structures, Yeremeev responded vaguely, saying it is “impossible to accept money from Russian bank cards without it passing through Russia,” at least “to his knowledge.”

Yeremeev stated, “As for @donate transactions on non-Russian bank cards, of course they are never processed through Russia and do not contact with Russian entities in any way. The @donate team just confirmed this to me again.”

Despite efforts to reach them, Telegram did not respond to Mediazona’s questions. Hong Kong businessman Kino Kwok did not respond to a LinkedIn message.

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

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