Unpicking The Cyber-Crime Economy
Turning virtual cash into real money without being caught is a big problem for successful cyber-criminals. Tens of thousands of stolen card numbers are traded daily on the underground markets that Mr Zador and his colleagues monitor, with details taken from compromised websites or databases.
“They can try to sell the card, which is not big money because they only get a few dollars for each one,” he said.
Instead, he added, they are more likely to use them to buy more valuable assets like iPhones or Macbooks, which are popular because they tend to hold their value when resold.
“They do not buy 100 or so iPhones at once,” he said. “They use a lot of different cards at different times.”
Mr Mador said the crooks use randomisation tools to thwart anti-fraud systems that would spot if all the purchases, even those made with different cards, are being done on the same computer.
Mr Mador, and others, have seen adverts seeking drivers who can take part, with Spain and the US both popular locations for the fraud. Other places like Moscow and St Petersburg were “temporarily unavailable”.
“They are looking for Uber drivers for fraudulent payments, people who can register for Uber and do fake rides,” said Mr Mador.
The driver’s account is used to launder the cash generated when stolen credit cards are used to pay for the fictitious journeys and they get a cut of the money as a payment.
Dr McGuire’s research suggests billions in criminal cash passes through underground markets each year. Some of that is just thieves selling to thieves but other methods involve the sale of drugs and other contraband.
Through conversations with convicted crooks and the police who pursue them, Dr McGuire said it was clear that some were involved in the trade for very mundane reasons.
“It’s a very human set of activities that these people are involved in,” he said. “About 15% were just using their revenues to pay their mortgages and their bills.”
Banks are getting better at spotting money laundering that uses property and fake corporations, said Rob Horton, from BAE’s Applied Intelligence division that helps financial firms spot fraud.
This is not straightforward work, he explained, because the crooks worked hard to obscure their ownership of the bogus firms.
But, he said, detailed long-term analysis of the information shared by front companies can help unpick the relationships.
Some gangs approach people who have done manual low-paid work abroad and offer to buy access to the bank account they set up when in that country.
Old school fraud detection systems would struggle to spot cash laundered through this route, because they were very “brittle”, Mr Samant said. They tended to look for anomalous behaviour rather than consider the context around the account, how it is used over time and where cash goes.