It is no secret that in this age of Internet-everything identity theft is a growing problem. And new research shows that online credit card thieves are among the most well-organized criminals in cyberspace.
Michigan State University criminologist Thomas Holt took a look into the underground world of credit card theft, discovering that the crooks involved have built a sophisticated online marketplace similar to a black market version of eBay or Amazon. By getting together online with other criminals, the thieves are able to sell data and money laundering services, often on Web forums, and send and receive payments electronically or through a third party.
“These aren’t just 15-year-olds stealing credit card info online and using it to buy pornography,” said Holt, associate professor of criminal justice. “These are thieves who come to trust one another. There’s a layer of sophistication here that can’t be understated, that’s very different than what we think about with other forms of crime.”
The thieves begin by stealing credit card information either by hacking into the database of a bank, retailer or service provider, or by sending fraudulent emails with official-looking logos to individuals in an attempt to “phish” for sensitive details such as usernames and passwords. The information can also be stolen in the physical world by attaching a hard-to-spot device on an ATM or by co-opting people who work in sales to swipe the card details with electronic devices.
Then, many thieves opt to sell the card information online to avoid using the stolen card and creating a paper trial. Holt said that stolen information for a Visa Classic card, for instance, will routinely sell online for between $5 and $20.
According to Holt, the card buyers are then able to turn around and find a trove of criminal services online, which — for a fee — help them use the cards for purchases or cash withdrawals without being tracked down by authorities.
The criminologist said that the Internet-based marketplace allows the criminals to take a very Democratic approach to building a vast organized crime network, unlike traditional criminal organizations that have relied on hierarchical structure.