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Comrades in Crime 

A computer sales scam in the Eastern suburbs could be just a loose network of Russian con artists — or something much more sinister.

All Gene Gontmakner needs is a telephone and a credit card machine. His chutzpah, double-talk, and bullshit will take care of the rest.

With a telephone headset crowning his frosted hair and earring, Gont- makner is hard at work trying to placate another dissatisfied customer. He has a ready supply of apologies and excuses for people who have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on custom-designed computers that often don't work nearly as well as Gontmakner and his colleagues promise.

A thirty-year-old Ukraine native who now lives in South Euclid, Gontmakner has managed to turn the complaints of this customer -- to whom he sold several computers -- into a ploy for selling more software. Gontmakner is so pleased with himself that he puts the sucker on hold and brags to a visitor about his ability to scam neophyte computer buyers.

"He bought one thing, now I've jacked him up to $700," Gontmakner boasts, with both an accent and disdain for his customer breaking through. "He thinks he knows, but he doesn't."

Gontmakner goes back to the caller, his gold-and-diamond pinky rings the only sources of glitter in an otherwise depressingly drab office. "Just to show I want to work this out, I'll knock off another 25 bucks. I'll give you Office [Microsoft Office Pro] at cost. I'm trying to make this right."

A pause. "I understand we didn't ship it on time," he says, rolling his eyes. "I'll talk to the owners and make it fly by."

Getting to the owners shouldn't be too difficult, since Gontmakner is the vice president of New Age Micro in Eastlake, and the company's president, Boris Levikov, is seated directly across from him, dealing with phone calls of his own. A look at the duo, facing each other across pushed-together desktops with matching computers and phones, reveals just how empty corporate titles can be.

Nor is New Age Micro the elaborate company on the cutting edge of technology that many naive customers believe it to be. Instead, it's a small business in a cramped, rinky-dink office building with a large warehouse in the rear, located in a nondescript office park between Route 2 and a First Energy power plant. In perhaps a defiant act of vanity, five of the ten company employees have their own parking spots reserved by name.

Visitors entering the building are greeted by a photocopied piece of paper taped to the wall that directs them to New Age Micro. In the office they share, Levikov and Gontmakner have two aquariums that lack air pumps, forcing the catfish and zebra danios to swim in murky, stagnant water.

Like a number of East Side computer companies started and owned by recent Soviet immigrants, New Age Micro has dozens of complaints from customers alleging the company is nothing more than a scam operation. For this, Gontmakner is stunningly unapologetic.

"Hey, the bottom line is that we're in the business of making money. Know what I'm saying?" he says.

And what of specific charges that his company promises and charges customers for high-quality computers, only to mail them average or poor systems? Has Gontmakner done that?

"I'd be lying if I say no," he admits. "Everybody does. It's part of business."

Gontmakner is quick to shift blame for the reams of complaints against local Soviet-owned computer companies to uninformed and naive customers, who have no idea what they want except for the lowest possible price. People who are smart, he says, use consultants to buy their computers and software.

"If you don't care, come to me," Gontmakner says. "I'll sell you a piece of shit, and you'll be calling me for the next three years."

Then it's back to the customer waiting on the phone. Gontmakner negotiates some more, then brazenly flaunts the awful reputation of his company to the unwitting mark. "Be careful what you buy," he warns. "There's a lot of bad stuff out there."

Indeed. And with increasing frequency, that "bad stuff" is coming from a web of East Side companies whose owners immigrated to the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Stretching from Eastlake to Twinsburg, they initially appear to be a hodgepodge of small storefronts and innocuous warehouses. But that facade masks a tangled network of business connections and players linked by questionable practices and ventures.

What's more, almost all of them have roots in a now-defunct company whose founder has vanished, adding to his mythical standing as a freewheeling entrepreneur who saw and snatched the American Dream.

And most use a strikingly similar modus operandi. Typically, these companies sell defective or substandard computers through the mail, over the Internet, and at unregulated computer shows. Customers who call with complaints or questions are ignored, verbally abused, or in some cases threatened. When the glare of attention becomes too hot -- as consumer complaints, lawsuits, and investigations pile up -- the companies go out of business, only to have the principals reemerge at a new computer company.

It all adds up to one of the most unique scams to hit the region in years. Consider these statistics:

Last year alone, the Cleveland Better Business Bureau (BBB) received 536 complaints about local computer dealers, nearly double the next-highest category. By comparison, new and used auto dealers accounted for 179 complaints. In 1996, there were virtually no complaints against computer companies; last year was the second in a row they topped the list.

Microsoft has filed seventeen lawsuits against local companies for software piracy, fifteen of them in the past three years. Thus far, the software giant has been awarded $1.7 million in damages.

The Ohio Attorney General's office has also received dozens of complaints from disgruntled customers about these companies.

Igor Abramovsky, the mercurial owner of two defunct computer companies, is in federal prison after threatening to kill two people who complained about the hardware he sold. In one case, Abramovsky threatened to kill the family of a Florida man; in another, he bragged about his connections to Russian organized-crime groups in New York.

Mikhail and Rimma Levikov, officers in Micro Pro Inc., face federal charges for allegedly filing false income-tax returns. Rimma, Micro Pro's treasurer, faces additional charges of filing false corporate tax returns. Their case is being prosecuted by the Organized Crime Strike Force Unit of the local U.S. Attorney's office.

"I would say we do see a significant amount of counterfeit activity and software piracy in this area of Ohio," says Microsoft attorney Janice Block. "I think it's fair to say there's a good deal of it going on."

David Weiss, president of the Cleveland Better Business Bureau for the past fifteen years, agrees that the problems go well beyond bad customer service. "Certainly, this is an area we think is ripe for law enforcement to look at," he says.

According to several sources, the FBI is already investigating several Russian-, Belarussian-, and Ukrainian-owned computer companies in Cleveland. And it's more than just bad hard drives and substandard modems that have attracted their attention. There are larger, more disturbing questions that have yet to be answered, such as:

Where do recent Soviet immigrants, many of whom are in their twenties, obtain the money to finance these new businesses?

Are these companies simply engaged in bad business practices or following a deliberate pattern of criminal behavior?

Are any of these businesses linked to Russian organized-crime cells locally, nationally, or even internationally?

The answers to these and other questions won't be clear until the various law enforcement agencies complete their investigations. In the meantime, companies like New Age Micro continue to operate with incredible disdain for legal requirements and ethical guidelines.

Essentially, what Gontmakner and his cohorts have done is mix Soviet-style black-market techniques with American capitalism to create a wholly unique monster. They've spawned an economic Wild West, national in scope, criminal in nature, right in Cleveland's backyard.

Overnight Sensation

The seeds of this burgeoning Cleveland crime wave can be traced back ten years and 5,000 miles, to Moscow in the late 1980s. During the previous three decades, communist rulers had refused almost all petitions from citizens asking to leave the Soviet Union. These would-be emigrants even garnered their own name -- Refusniks -- from the government's refusal to let them emigrate.

That changed with Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika, which opened the door for Refusniks anxious to leave the Soviet Union. Soviet Jews who had been trickling into Israel or the U.S. were now allowed to leave en masse, and many of them wanted to come to the United States. The oncoming wave worried officials in both countries.

"The Israelis got kind of concerned all these people would bypass Israel and go to the States," says Cleveland immigration lawyer David Leopold, adding with a chuckle, "and the United States got kind of concerned all these people would bypass Israel and go to the States."

The U.S. eventually agreed to an annual figure of 40,000 Soviet refugees -- predominantly Jewish -- while the rest were given citizenship in Israel. Which 40,000 could come to America was, and still is, based on kinship.

"You have to have a family relative, a first-degree relative, sponsor you. It's based on family reunification," Leopold says. "I know Cleveland received a tremendous amount of refugees, at least throughout the early '90s."

There are an estimated 6,000 Jewish refugees among the 30,000 immigrants who have come to Cleveland from the former Soviet Union. Cheryl Lewis, supervisor for refugee resettlement for the Jewish Family Service Association in Cleveland Heights, says most of the refugees came between 1991 and '93. Many settled in East Side communities like Mayfield Heights and Solon.

One of those arrivals was Igor Iskiyayev. Former associates say Iskiyayev and his wife Lolita were so poor when they arrived that they were often seen knocking on the neighbor's door, asking to borrow a vacuum cleaner. But Iskiyayev didn't stay poor for long.

Cobbling together some used and discarded parts into functional computers, Iskiyayev went into business as Micro Experts. He advertised in Computer Shopper, the bible of the cut-rate computer industry, offering custom-designed computers at discount prices. As the Internet became popular and computers moved from a luxury to common household appliance, Micro Experts' business boomed.

Iskiyayev was fortunate to have a well-educated workforce hungry for jobs at his fingertips -- his fellow Soviet immigrants. "People come over here with highly developed skills in the scientific fields," Lewis says, noting that, while recent immigrants sometimes struggle with English, computer languages are universal. "I know a lot of people are in the computer field."

By 1993 Micro Experts had locations in Solon and University Heights, and was selling its wares at weekend computer shows throughout the Midwest. The company ran up to fifteen pages of ads in Computer Shopper every month -- at $10,000 per ad.

How did Micro Experts achieve such quick and phenomenal success? Certainly, associates and former employees say, Iskiyayev was smart and shrewd. He had educated and dependable employees. He got into the market just as it was booming.

But Iskiyayev had something else: pirated software and a penchant for swindling people.

"Micro Experts was the retailer of fraudulent [computers]. If they could rip you off, they'd rip you off," says one man who worked for a Russian-owned East Side computer company. "They'd do whatever they had to."

Sitting in an Arabica coffeehouse south of Cleveland, the ex-employee says his name cannot be used in this story, nor the name of the company he worked for. Why not? He pulls out his wallet and flashes a picture of his young son, explaining that he fears for both his and his son's safety if his name appears in print. "If you fuck with someone's livelihood, they're gonna come after you," he says matter-of-factly.

He then gives a fascinating three-hour rundown on how Iskiyayev and his imitators operated, adding that Micro Experts provided the blueprint still used by many of the fraudulent computer companies. Interviews with law enforcement officials, business watchdogs, and disgruntled customers corroborate much of what he says.

"[Iskiyayev] was actually a good businessman. He had millions of computer parts," the man says. "The young guys looked up to Igor."

Micro Experts did sell legitimate computers, but would often deceive customers in ways as simple as they were effective. "They'd take Intel 120 megahertz processors and put 166 megahertz [covers] on top," the man says. Iskiyayev would also charge an additional 3 percent fee for buying with a credit card, a tactic that raked in extra profits or convinced customers to pay in untraceable cash.

"Anywhere they could squeeze a buck out of you, they would," the ex-employee says. "They didn't care if it was legal, moral, or not."

Iskiyayev's company reportedly did millions of dollars in business from out-of-town orders generated by Computer Shopper ads. Then he discovered a new market and unleashed his workers on weekend computer shows.

"They'd go to these trade shows," the man explains. "They'd pay $500 for a table. Their only expense was the cost of the table, getting to the show, and the minimal amount they paid their workers." Micro Experts and, later, several other computer companies from Cleveland offered just about any computer, component, or software application available in stores.

"Some was legitimate, some were fakes," he says. "They had Photoshop, Microsoft, WordPerfect, Lotus. Every major software application you could think of, they had a pirated version."

The shows were big business. One weekend in 1996, according to the ex-employee, the company he was working for returned from a weekend show in Dayton with $150,000 in cash. "For the most part, the money never got reported to the IRS. They never paid taxes on it," he says.

Iskiyayev became a legendary figure in Cleveland's Russian community. Asked today why they entered the computer business, every single store owner mentions Iskiyayev. "I heard about [Micro Experts] and Igor. He was very wealthy, I heard," says Vladimir Vitlin, president of Apex Technologies in Mayfield Heights.

That part, at least, is more than legend. Iskiyayev bought a home in tony Orange Village and in September 1996 secured an agreement from Deutsche Financial Services for financing to acquire more inventory. The additional inventory was needed because by then, Iskiyayev and his company had spawned an entire local industry. When several of his employees left to start their own companies, Iskiyayev didn't compete with these spinoffs -- instead, he became their supplier. In turn, they copied the mail-order and computer-show scams their mentor had perfected.

"They'd get their equipment on Friday from Micro Experts, go to the show, make their money, return the unused products, and make $20,000," the ex-employee says.

Soon, computer companies were sprouting up all over the East Side.

Computer Rubes

During 1997 and 1998, more than eighty disgruntled Micro Experts customers contacted the Cleveland BBB to complain about a laundry list of problems: generic equipment being sold as brand-name, defective systems, and brand-new systems in need of repair, among others. It's a pattern that continues to be used by many of the other computer companies.

In fairness, there are a few factors that, while not excusing such behavior, do help to explain it. Leopold, the immigration attorney, believes that conflicting cultures play a critical role in this criminal phenomenon.

"When I was in Moscow in 1990 and '91, I found that you basically had to have tremendous connections. You had to know somebody just to get a case of Pepsi. You had to have the kind of connections it takes to run for judge in Cuyahoga County to buy food, if you weren't going to buy it on the black market.

"So yeah, you do have a bunch of folks who are coming from the mentality that, if you're going to get something, there are really no rules," he continues. "I don't mean to make a sweeping judgment about Russians or Russian Jews. But part of the mentality of survival in the Soviet Union was just that: a survival mentality. I don't think it can be explained or apologized for. But I think if you put it in the context of what people had to do in the Soviet Union to survive, it helps you understand how some folks come here with a certain mentality."

For amoral entrepreneurs, there's also a large pool of customers who have never purchased computers before, but are so hungry for a bargain they often ignore common sense, as if they're buying socks or diapers. "People went beyond reason to save money," says the ex-employee. "If you're getting a $600 product for $150, you have to say, "What's wrong with this?' People were so eager to buy these [computers], they were eager to get ripped off."

Consider Gary Bentrup, a truck driver from Milwaukee who bought faulty computers at shows from not one, but two Cleveland companies. He purchased his first computer two years ago for $1,000 at a show in downtown Milwaukee. The one-hundred-plus vendors at the show, he recalls, "were all from Ohio."

Bentrup bought his first computer from Americomp, a Solon company run by Eric Gesis, a 35-year-old Ukrainian. After paying for the computer with a personal check, he took it home, booted it up, and within five minutes "the screen would just freeze up." He took the computer back to the show the next day and explained his problem.

"They said it was all operator error," Bentrup says, repeating a common refrain. "It was all my fault."

By the following day, the show was over and the vendors were gone. Bentrup says he tried for months to contact Americomp, but was continually put into voice mail, and his messages were never returned. He eventually took the computer to a repair shop near his home, where the problem was diagnosed as a faulty hard drive, which cost $282 to replace. Within six months of his purchase, Bentrup says, the keyboard, speakers, and CD-ROM also malfunctioned. Total repairs came to more than $500.

Amazingly, Bentrup was not completely soured on computer shows. Last year, he went to another show outside Milwaukee and wrote a $700 check to ABC Computers, a Warrensville Heights company owned by Andrey and Svetlana Narinskiy.

"We came home with the thing, plugged everything in, and it wouldn't even boot up," Bentrup says. He eventually took the computer to his local repairman, who said both the motherboard and modem were defective. Fortunately, he was able to stop payment on his check.

Experts say Bentrup's experiences are typical in several respects. Both times, the Cleveland-area companies sold their equipment to someone from outside the area. There are, in fact, very few complaints about the companies from Cleveland-area residents, a fact that Weiss says is no coincidence.

"A lot of disreputable merchants don't [operate] in their back yard. They don't want anyone nearby who can come and hammer them," he says. "It also keeps local law enforcement off of them."

Bentrup admits he is "90 percent computer illiterate," which also fits the modus operandi of shady computer companies. Weiss notes that technically savvy people are generally sold legitimate equipment, whereas computer novices are prime targets to be duped.

What's more, Bentrup, like dozens of other customers complaining about Cleveland computer companies, says both Americomp and ABC had awful customer service, a fact that doesn't surprise Weiss. "In many situations we hear reports of where they're basically calling customers morons and idiots," Weiss says. "I wish I had a dime for every time a person said they were hung up on."

Terry Runion, a network analyst for Xerox in Rochester, New York, had a similar experience. Runion builds computers as a side job and says he bought at least $10,000 worth of parts from New Age Micro. He often had problems with the hardware. But even more frustrating was the way he was treated when trying to get a refund.

"They won't even talk to you. They won't acknowledge that there's anything wrong with any of their stuff," Runion says. "I can see why they have all their shows out of town."

Clearly, this is not the profile of companies interested in building successful, long-term businesses. What it suggests instead is a scam that fast-talking opportunists have learned to milk for as much as they can until the house of cards comes crashing down.

"Two Days and You Dead"

David Weiss is a wiry man whose energy comes in bursts. In a conference room at the Cleveland Better Business Bureau on East Ninth Street, he talks passionately about the need to protect consumers, but it's clear the computer issue is one he takes very personally. "There is a tremendous amount of arrogance from some of these companies," he says.

Weiss dealt mostly with shady used-car salesmen and errant tradesmen before waves of complaints about computer companies flooded his desk. "Nineteen ninety-seven was the first year it was at the top of the charts," he says, referring to his agency's annual report on consumer complaints. "The number of complaints went from negligible numbers in the early 1990s to far and away the top complaint category in 1997 and '98.

"Obviously, Cleveland became something of a regional center for the industry. That would in and of itself create a moderate complaint volume, but this went way beyond that." He adds: "This is certainly the most significant surge of complaints from any one industry since I've been here."

Like virtually everyone who discussed the topic, Weiss is quick to note that some of the computer companies owned by recent Soviet immigrants are exemplary. "There are certainly companies run by immigrants that are doing a great job."

In fact, more than half of the nearly 1,200 complaints the BBB has received over the past three years can be traced to eight companies owned by Soviet immigrants. What's interesting -- particularly, sources say, to the FBI -- is that so many of the troubled companies appear to be linked.

Take Igor Abramovsky, the most colorful character to emerge from this web of electronic intrigue. Abramovsky, who emigrated from Belarus, is currently sitting in federal prison in Virginia, serving a fifteen-month sentence after pleading guilty to charges of mail fraud, making false statements to an FBI agent, and interstate transportation of threatening communication.

In 1992, Abramovsky opened a business called Computer Star in a storefront on Euclid Avenue in Willoughby, selling computers over the Internet and through the mail. But according to federal prosecutors, Computer Star was nothing more than a scam. Abramovsky shipped defective computers when he sent anything at all. Sometimes he simply charged customers over the phone and then didn't ship anything.

"He was 23, a young kid, very brash," says Weiss. "He did think he was going to get away with it."

By June 1998, Computer Star had its Visa and MasterCard privileges taken away because so many people had tried to stop payment after doing business with Abramovsky. The company was also being evicted by its landlord after its rent check bounced.

At that point, like many of these companies, Computer Star simply vanished. Abramovsky told the BBB he sold his business, including his customer list and 800 number, to a company called Stargate 2000. The Willoughby storefront was closed, and Abramovsky apparently disappeared.

In reality, he simply reopened his operation in Twinsburg as Stargate 2000, calling himself David Smirnov. Abramovsky went so far as to identify himself by that name during a news report on WKYC-TV/Channel 3. He also identified himself as David Smirnov to the Akron Better Business Bureau and Twinsburg police, though he refused to provide any identification.

Abramovsky's cover was blown when he had a meeting with Akron BBB officials that was also attended by Cindy Kopin and Sharon Sokol of the Cleveland BBB.

Abramovsky was unaware the Cleveland representatives would also be at the meeting. When confronted about the dueling names, Abramovsky admitted David Smirnov was an alias.

"He said, "I have to come clean with all of you, because [Kopin] knows who I am,'" Sokol remembers incredulously. "He was laughing like "I played a big joke on you.'"

Abramovsky played hardball with his customers. One of the many people he ripped off was a man identified only by the pseudonym Mike Wert. Instead of simply calling the BBB, Wert constructed a website to warn consumers about Computer Star and Stargate 2000. Wert's website opened with the proclamation: "STARGATE 2000 COMPUTER STAR INC. WARNING THEY WILL TAKE YOUR MONEY AND NOT SHIP YOUR ORDER."

That didn't sit well with Abramovsky, who began e-mailing threats to Wert. Abramovsky's grammar may be flawed, but there was no confusing his message:

"you have 2 days to take this out from web site or you will be dead DON'T FUCK WITH US! we know your address and your phone and you! 2 DAYS ONLY AND YOU DEAD!!!!DON'T FUCK HAPPY CUSTOMER!!!!"

In a later message, Abramovsky wrote: "DO YOU THING WE PLAY GAMES!!!DON'T FUCK WITH COMPUTER COMPANYS!! !!YOU FUCK WITH US AND WE WILL FUCK YOU BACK!!!"

Abramovsky made similar threats to Seth Preus, a Florida man who bought a defective computer from Computer Star. After Preus called Abramovsky and demanded a refund, Abramovsky told him: "We know who you are . . . We know where you live. If you keep fucking with us, we will kill you."

Abramovsky, who lived in Mayfield Heights, also told John Krupa, another dissatisfied customer, that he and his company were linked to the Russian Mafia in Brighton Beach, New York.

Though he never got the opportunity to prove that claim, Abramovsky was not operating alone. FBI surveillance showed that one of the cars frequently parked in Stargate 2000's parking lot belonged to Svetlana Narinskiy, a Cleveland Heights woman who, BBB records indicate, co-owns ABC Computers in Warrensville Heights. In fact, after Abramovsky's credit card privileges were rescinded, he charged customers using ABC's credit card machine.

This is only one strand in a complex web of East Side computer connections. Just as Computer Star/Stargate 2000 is linked to ABC, ABC is linked to Apex Technologies, a Mayfield Heights company doing business as Micro Xperts. ABC was founded by Narinskiy, Andrey Narinskiy, Oleg Kachva, and Vladimir Vitlin. But now, Vitlin says, he and Kachva have split from the Narinskiys and are doing business on their own.

ABC is also linked to Cyberspace Computer in Highland Heights. ABC bought Cyberspace Computer's 800 number when the company went out of business in July, taking over its customer base. According to BBB records, Cyberspace Computer employed Edward Fishman, Alex Kuyenov, and Boris Levikov, who now does business with Gene Gontmakner at New Age Micro. The links go on. Levikov is a cousin of Mikhail Levikov, who is under indictment with his wife Rimma for tax evasion at Micro Pro.

If it seems confusing, that's because it was meant to be. The shell game has kept the entire operation a virtual secret here in Cleveland, while people throughout the country continue to get ripped off.

No Mafia Here

Microsoft was the first out of the box to investigate these companies, which is not surprising, given the company's vigilance over pirated software. While the FBI investigation remains shrouded in secrecy, Microsoft's allegations can be found sitting in the federal courthouse on Superior Avenue.

Thus far, the company has won a $1 million judgment against Micro Experts and, in a default judgment, another $744,000 from ABC Computers and the Narinskiys. Microsoft has lawsuits pending against at least nine other area computer companies, including Boris Levikov and Cyberspace Computers, for copyright and trademark infringement.

Microsoft's victory over Micro Experts, settled in April, was another blow against Iskiyayev's crumbling empire. During a four-month period in 1997, Microsoft investigators purchased 65 copies of Windows '95 and mice from Micro Experts. Every mouse and every copy of Windows '95 was counterfeit.

In September 1998, WeTech Electronics won a $387,000 default judgment against Micro Experts for failure to pay for more than 1,500 computer monitors. Three months later, United Van Lines won a judgment of nearly $5,000 after Micro Experts stiffed the mover on a shipping bill.

But by that time, Micro Experts was just a shell. The company was also being sued after defaulting on a $3.4 million loan from Deutsche Financial Services Corp. The bank eventually seized the company, and this year sold off what was left of Iskiyayev's business from a warehouse on Northfield Road.

Iskiyayev was not there to watch -- he had already added to his myth by vanishing. And none of his former associates know, or at least will admit knowing, where he is now. Even his attorney, Keith Kraus, says Iskiyayev's whereabouts are a mystery. There are rumors that he's hiding in Brooklyn, Miami, or even Moscow, but for the moment he remains a fugitive.

Of course, rumors are easy to come by when discussing these Soviet-owned companies. The most persistent is that they are linked to Russian organized crime. It's a charge the owners deny, but law enforcement officials are actively pursuing.

Lt. Dale Pitra of the Warrensville Heights Police Department first encountered the string of Soviet-owned computer companies while investigating the murder of Boris Shermantyuk, who owned Quick Line Micro. Shermantyuk was shot in the head last year by employee Stanislav Transkiy. While Pitra has no proof that any of the computer companies are linked to Russian organized-crime groups, his gut tells him otherwise.

"There's no way I can confirm or deny that," Pitra says when asked about the presence of Russian organized crime in Greater Cleveland. "They say there's no Russian Mafia. But we've got to know better."

Like other investigators, Pitra is troubled by the question of how these start-ups are financed. "Where are they getting their money from?" he asks. "They say there's no Russian organized crime. But my own feeling is that there's more going on here than meets the eye."

The questions are more urgent than ever, following the revelations in the still-unfolding scandal at the Bank of New York, where Russian mobsters laundered $7 billion over three years. It's the most tangible evidence to date that Russian organized-crime groups have infiltrated the U.S. It is believed that at least some of the money is derived from U.S. aid that was siphoned off by corrupt public officials.

Since the collapse of the Russian financial system last year, money has been leaving Russia at unprecedented levels. Investigators in the U.S. have been watching for an increase in money laundering, the illegal practice of moving ill-gotten money through a series of businesses and bank accounts. The money is then withdrawn and appears to be legitimate profits from legal businesses.

Could some of that money be finding its way to Cleveland? The computer company owners say no way and adamantly deny any links to organized crime.

Vladimir Vitlin is a slight man who immigrated here from Leningrad as a Refusnik after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Talking to a reporter in his small storefront on Mayfield Road, he complains that declining prices and competition from national chains are making it difficult for companies like his.

"I don't think anyone involved in the computer business has time for crime," Vitlin says with a sigh. "I start the day at 8:30 and get home about midnight. I don't see my family. I don't see my kids. It's a crazy business, very tough. I will be amazed if anyone finds time for crime."

Eric Gesis, president of Americomp in Solon, agrees. Gesis, whose office is decorated with a drawing of Odessa and a Star of David made with popsicle sticks and glitter, says a few bad companies are ruining it for others.

"Russian immigrants . . . arrived and managed to establish companies, pay taxes, and be good citizens," Gesis says. "Any community has good people and bad people. I completely agree it is not a normal situation. Some have changed names, gone out of business, discredited us. [But] there's no Mafia here."

When asked about the 66 complaints filed against his company over three years, Gesis retreats to the victimization mentality that has become a hallmark of renegade computer companies.

"There's no way I can test every single part," he says. "I work seven days a week. Mail order, it is tough, because the customer doesn't see you and you don't see the customer . . . But it's not only the companies. Sometimes the customers expect more than they're supposed to. It's 50/50."

He does allow that there are some legitimate problems in the business.

"You always have somebody who wants to be smarter than everyone else and rip people off. It's not common, but it happens," he says. "Not everyone is honest, but there's more fairy tales. Maybe because we're a different-speaking community, that's part of it. We're as normal as everybody else."

Gesis then excuses himself to take a phone call. He is overheard telling the caller: "The price jumps because the Taiwan earthquake. The prices I provided you jumped. There's no profit; that's why I had to increase it."

An earthquake in Taiwan jacks up the price? That kind of brazen fantasy is exactly what makes dealing with these companies at once breathtaking and infuriating. Ultimately, however one views this new wave of brash entrepreneurs -- as criminal con artists or hardworking immigrants struggling to fit into a new culture, or a little of both -- it's safe to say they are unlike any other game in town.

Consider Gontmakner, the fast-talking New Age Micro exec who seems to relish breaks from haggling with customers to talk about this "crazy" business. He's just agreed to knock down the price of a piece of software -- a surprising concession, given Gontmakner's usual hard-ass bargaining stance.

Not to worry, Gontmakner says with a smile. "The bottom line is, I will bill what I want."

Until the long arm of the law reins them in, it's safe to bet that most of these companies will continue along the same lines, doing whatever they damn well please.

Mike Tobin can be reached at mtobin@clevescene.com.

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