A lot of what we security professionals do includes protecting information from being compromised (especially personal information). The shift towards more profit-driven computer crime has happened swiftly over the last decade, so it should come as no surprise that there is a booming underground market centered almost entirely around compromised financial and personal data. And, on the other end of the spectrum, we have laws and regulations to help minimize the leakage of this data in the first place. Plenty of research and documentation exists for the many ways we try to protect information, but there isn’t much (public) info on the underground market populated by the attackers and their associates who trade in illegally-gotten information. So, how do someone’s bank account credentials grease the wheels of this unique ecosystem?

The Underground Economy: Priceless (pdf) touches on the subject in a great amount of detail, even explaining the importance of reputation and the lengths people take to avoid prosecution.

Essentially, public and private servers host communities of individuals who offer their services for a fee. Maybe one person will help someone else cash out an entire bank account (for a 50% cut). And maybe another person will deliver ill-purchased goods to a safe location (for a 30% stake). In the mix are also those who initially did the work (or wrote the code) to capture the information, as well as people who specialize in forging IDs, curious researchers, law enforcement… the list goes on. Compromised financial data seems to lead to a very deep chain of events that attracts many people with varying skillsets, most of whom are simply offering to perform the same hustle(s) over and over. It is a system where both information and skills are bartered/exchanged and high risk is accepted for high returns on investment.

But not all participants are highly skilled– there should be some low-hanging fruit in there too, right? Surely, there are people who aren’t as cautious or who miscalculate their risk of exposure, yet we still have trouble keeping up with even a fraction of the online fraud. While I’m glad we are focusing efforts on preventing information from being compromised in the first place, I feel like there is a growing opportunity to focus a lot more research on thwarting these high-risk behaviors directly. Sometimes you have to treat both the symptom and the cause.