How a Russian Mobile App Developer Recruited Phones into a Secret Ad-Watching Robot Army
13 Sep 2021

By Martin Laine, OCCRP, 9 September 2021

OCCRP — In October 2020, Maxim Karpenko, an independent Russian mobile game developer, was sitting on a train about to go on vacation when a friend messaged him with troubling news.

Stavrio Ltd., a little-known company in the U.K., had just filed for a trademark to Karpenko’s most prized work, WorldBox, a “god simulator” mobile game that allows users to create and nurture virtual civilizations.

Karpenko had spent eight years developing WorldBox, which had been downloaded millions of times. Now it looked as though he might lose everything overnight. Stavrio Ltd. had quietly replicated the game and was offering it on mobile app stores under its own name.

“I panicked and cancelled the trip, went back home … and started looking for lawyers,” Karpenko told OCCRP and its Estonian partner, Eesti Ekspress.

Karpenko remembered meeting Aleksandr Novikov, a mobile game executive affiliated with Stavrio Ltd., at a game industry conference in Minsk, Belarus, a year earlier. Novikov stood out because he was wearing a suit in a space where t-shirts, jeans, and hoodies were a far more common sight. He introduced himself as an investor in JustMoby, a mobile app publishing company based in the southwestern Russian city of Tolyatti.

Novikov kept in touch with Karpenko and eventually made a six-figure offer for WorldBox. Unsure about Novikov’s sincerity, Karpenko declined.

Now, with his game seemingly stolen and his future plans in tatters, Karpenko was determined to learn more about Stavrio Ltd. In November 2020, Karpenko published a Reddit post about several other apps that Stavrio and other companies connected to Novikov had passed off as their own.

Read more at OCCRP 

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