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The underground economy is booming even as the rest of the economy lurches towards recession, according to a new study by Symantec.

The net security giant reports that the cybercrime economy has grown into an efficient, global marketplace to handle the trade in stolen goods and fraud-related services. It estimates the combined value of goods in underground forums at $276m for the 12 months prior to the end of June 2008.

Credit card data made up nearly a third (31 per cent) of the advertised sales logged, recorded the Symantec study. Purloined credit card numbers sold for between $0.10 to $25 per card, with the average advertised stolen credit card limit coming in at around $4,000. Credit card information is often sold to fraudsters in job lots, with discounts for large purchases.

Login details for online accounts were the subject of one in five sales and the second most commonly offered commodity in underground crooks bazaars. Stolen login details were offered for anything between $10 and $1,000, depending on the balance and location of compromised accounts. The average balance of these accounts was around 40,000.

Other items up for sale included email accounts and pirated computer games or application software.

Online currency accounts were by far most popular method of payment, used to settle 63 percent of the sales monitored by Symantec.

During the 12 month period it spied on underground forums, Symantec spotted 69,130 advertisers. Between these sellers and buyers a total 44,321,095 messages were posted to underground forums. The 10 most active advertisers collectively offered up stolen $16.3m worth of stolen credit card details and $2m in purloined login credentials. A mixture of loosely connected individuals and organised groups are involved in the illicit trade, Symantec reports.

Advertisers use techniques such as multi-coloured text, capitalising certain words and repeated sales pitches to help their sales offers to stand out from the crowd. Sometimes sellers post requests for particular goods and services, such as credit cards from a named country, Symantec adds. Crooks, who drain millions from the legitimate economy, commonly reinvest the profits from successful scams into other ever-more elaborate grifts.

Underground forums provide a thriving marketplace for all forms of hacking tools and service. Botnets - networks of compromised PCs - sold for an average of $225. Phishing scam hosting services cost anything between $2 and $80. Keystroke logger prices came in at around $23.

Site-specific exploits of financial sites fetched far more money, with an average price tag of $740, and prices ranging from $100 to $2,999.

Cybercrooks have developed sophisticated business models such that recognised job roles and specialisms have evolved in the "recession proof" digital underground. These roles, and job descriptions as defined by Syamntec, include:

  • Trojan creators – high quality malicious code writers wanted
  • Web exploiters – talented infectors sought
  • Exploit experts - tech geeks, programmers and researchers required
  • Traffic sellers - confident sales people required to market traffic
  • Fraudsters – ambitious, well connected crooks required to steal data
  • Outsourced rogue hosting companies – industry knowledge essential, must appear legitimate

Online fraudsters are making more use of outsourcing. Symantec found that organised crooks based in north America are using supplier in eastern Europe for goods and service including malware creation and ATM skimming kit.

The geographical location of cybercrime servers is constantly changed as crooks attempt to stay one step ahead of law enforcement efforts to shut them down. North America played host to 45 per cent of cybercrime servers, with Europe putting in a strong second place performance with 38 per cent of the total. Other crook-serving systems were scattered around the Asia-Pacific region (12 per cent) and Latin America (five per cent).

A summary of Symantec's study can be found here. The full report is here. ®

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