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July 07, 2014

Fighting the High-Tech Criminals

The days of small gangs or the lone criminal committing "grab-and-go" robberies or counterfeiting checks and currency are certainly not over. However, crime stories involving millions of dollars and criminal networks that span the globe tend to grab the headlines these days. Just about everyone has heard about the recent data breaches at major retailers and ATM cash-outs that have netted criminals millions of dollars. A presentation at a recent payments security conference addressed the role of high-tech criminal groups in such crimes and the major threat they present to the security and reputation of our payment system. The speaker described how law enforcement agencies are working vigilantly to shut down these large global criminal enterprises and their cybercriminal activities.

The speaker detailed the composition of a criminal network, which closely resembles the organizational structure of a multinational corporation with numerous subsidiaries. This image shows the major components of the criminal enterprise.

major compoenents of the criminal enterprise

  • Executives—These people serve as the originating group and ultimate beneficiaries of the spoils of their successful attacks. They identify the types of criminal cyberactivity to pursue, including identifying the target companies or computer systems.
  • Financiers—If the executives don't have the financial resources to carry out their scheme, they often link to a funding source. The financiers may receive a share of the executives' profits as compensation, or they may simply treat the transaction as a loan, charging interest until the loan proceeds are repaid.
  • Exploiters—The hackers and software personnel identify vulnerabilities in software or systems and write malware code to compromise a target's account credentials. They normally receive compensation based on the type of attack and the level of sophistication.
  • Botnet operators—A botnet is a network of compromised computers. The botnet operators, sometimes called "bot herders," control these systems. They run automated programs in the background, so they are often undetected by the legitimate computer owners, to send massive amounts of spam, conduct spear phishing attacks, or in some other way launch attacks against their targets. Botnet operators receive payment based on the number of compromised computers they use and the time required for the attack.
  • Money mules—These players are in the most vulnerable group; they are the people on the street, retrieving the stolen funds and sending them, minus their cut, to the executives. Some law enforcement authorities have said that mules' share of the ill-gotten proceeds can be as high as 60 percent, depending on an operation's level of risk.

While these players are closely linked, they are generally separate criminal groups that have developed niche roles. The separation provides some safety to the executive group in that if members of one of the linked groups are arrested, executives can find another group to take their place so they can continue their illegal activities.

The major global criminal networks have proven to be formidable because of their resilience, but they are not invulnerable. Law enforcement agencies in the United States and other countries are working together to attack these networks through a variety of strategies. Unfortunately, in many cases, the core criminal leaders are physically located in safe havens, so called because local policies may prevent extradition or because governmental officials may be complicit or corrupt so they ignore the criminal activity as long as the targets of the crime are outside their borders.

Portals and Rails salutes the law enforcement personnel for their tireless efforts in this constant battle.

Photo of Deborah Shaw

July 7, 2014 | Permalink

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