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DarkMarket carder forum revealed as FBI sting

Cybercrooks bamboozled

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Leaked documents have confirmed that carder forum DarkMarket was actually an FBI sting operation.

For the last two years until its shutdown earlier this month DarkMarket.ws posed as a forum where identity thieves, credit card fraudsters, crackers and other ne'er do wells could hang out and exchange tips as well as trading hacker tools and stolen data. In reality, the site was run by Federal agents based in Pittsburgh.

The true identity of the site was revealed by Südwestrundfunk, a German public radio station, Wired reports. The station unearthed documents showing that one of the site's overlord, Master Splynter, who posed as a spammer, was senior cybercrime agent J Keith Mularski. The DarkMarket sting was instrumental in trapping a German credit card hacker active on its forums.

DarkMarket offered a place to flog stolen credit card information and identities, hardware, and credit card magstripe swipes. The English-language site looked like somewhere the bad guys could get pointers on the quality of stolen information, harvested through phishing scams and the like, before buying goods.

Leaked documents show that the FBI had run DarkMarket as a sting since November 2006. A memo from FBI cybersleuths to their German counterparts boasts that the "FBI has been successful in penetrating the inner 'family' of the carding forum, DarkMarket". In an email dating from March 2007 FBI agent Mularski bluntly states "Master Splynter is me".

Federal agents used intelligence from the site to develop intelligence reports and mount investigations. It's unclear how many miscreants were busted as a result of the sting. Further arrests may follow and cybercrooks that frequented the forum are likely to be peering nervously over their shoulders.

Master Splynter announced his intention to close the site from 4 October, supposedly because a Turkish ATM fraudster was drawing "unwelcome attention" to the site. The Turkish hacker (Cha0) was marketing an ATM skimming device - fairly standard activity on the site - but he became famous after allegedly kidnapping and torturing a police informant. Local police arrested a suspect, named as Cagatay Evyapan, last month.

Rumours that DarkMarket was a federal sting were known to more clued-up crackers since the latter part of 2006, after a hacker reported evidence that Master Splynter had logged in from the National Cyber Forensics Training Alliance in Pittsburgh. Some dismissed the warning by Max Ray Butler as mud-slinging and continued to use the forum, even after Butler was arrested last year in a case handled by the FBI's Pittsburgh office.

The DarkMarket sting is rare but not unprecedented in US law enforcement circles. The US Secret Service placed an informant in the infamous ShadowCrew cybercrime forum four years ago, but the scheme backfired after the alleged source went on to commit more crimes. ®

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