Charting the changes in cybercrime over the past five years

by Bharat Mistry

The cybercrime economy is one of the runaway success stories of the 21st century — at least, for those who participate in it. Estimates claim it could be worth over $1trillion annually, more than the GDP of many countries. Part of that success is due to its ability to evolve and shift as the threat landscape changes. Trend Micro has been profiling the underground cybercrime community for several years. And over the past five, we’ve seen a major shift to new platforms, communications channels, products and services, as trust on the dark web erodes and new market demands emerge.

Unfortunately, we expect the current pandemic to create yet another evolution, as cyber-criminals look to take advantage of new ways of working and systemic vulnerabilities. 

Shifts in the underground
Our latest report, Shifts in Underground Markets, charts the fascinating progress of cybercrime over the past five years, through detailed analysis of forums, marketplaces and dark web sites around the world. It notes that in many product areas, the cost of items has dropped as they become commoditised: so where in 2015 you expected to pay $1000 per months for crypting services, today they may be as little as $20. 

In other areas, such as IoT botnets, cyber-propaganda and stolen gaming account credentials, prices are high as new products spark surging demand. Fortnite logins can sell for around $1,000 on average, for example. 

The good news is that law enforcement action appears to be working. Trend Micro has long partnered with Interpol, Europol, national crime agencies and local police to provide assistance in investigations. So it’s good to see that these efforts are having an impact. Many dark web forums and marketplaces have been infiltrated and taken down over the past five years, and our researchers note that current users complain of DDoS-ing and log-in issues. 

The cyber-criminals have been forced to take extreme measures as trust erodes among the community, for example, by using gaming communications service Discord to arrange trades, and e-commerce platform Shoppy.gg to sell items. A new site called DarkNet Trust was even created to tackle this specific challenge: it aims to verify cybercrime vendors’ reputations by analysing their usernames and PGP fingerprints.

What does the future hold?
However, things rarely stay still on the cybercrime underground. Going forward, we expect to see a range of new tools and techniques flood dark web stores and forums. AI will be at the centre of these efforts. Just as it’s being used by Trend Micro and other companies to root out fraud, sophisticated malware and phishing, it could be deployed in bots designed to predict roll patterns on gambling sites. It could also be used in deepfake services developed to help buyers bypass photo ID systems, or launch sextortion campaigns against individuals.

Some emerging trends are less hi-tech but no less damaging. Log-ins for wearable devices could be stolen and used to request replacements under warranty, defrauding the customer and costing the manufacturers dear. In fact, access to devices, systems and accounts is so common today that we’re already seeing it spun out in “as-a-service” cybercrime offerings. Prices for access to Fortune 500 companies can hit as much as $10,000.

Post-pandemic threats
Then there’s COVID-19. We’re already seeing fraudsters targeted government stimulus money with fake applications, sometimes using phished information from legitimate businesses. And healthcare organisations are being targeted with ransomware as they battle to save lives. 

Even as the pandemic recedes, remote working practices are likely to stay in many organisations. What does this mean for cybercrime? It means more targeting of VPN vulnerabilities with malware and DDoS services. And it means more opportunities to compromise corporate networks via connected home devices. Think of it like a kind of Reverse BYOD scenario – instead of bringing devices into work to connect, the corporate network is now merged with home networks.

Tackling such challenges will demand a multi-layered strategy predicated around that familiar trio: people, process and technology. It will require more training, better security for home workers, improved patch management and password security, and much more besides. But most of all it will demand continued insight into global cyber-criminals and the platforms they inhabit, to anticipate where the next threats are coming from. 

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