An online underground economy has recently matured into an efficient, global marketplace to trade stolen goods and offer fraud-related services.
According to Symantec's recently released 'Report on the Underground Economy', the estimated value of goods offered by individual traders within the online underground economy is measured in the millions of dollars.
The report is derived from data gathered by Symantec's Security Technology and Response (STAR) organisation, from underground economy servers between 1 July 2007 and 30 June 2008.
STAR is a worldwide team of security engineers, threat analysts, and researchers that provides the underlying functionality, content and support for all Symantec corporate and consumer security solutions.
The potential value of total advertised goods observed by Symantec was more than US$276 million for the reporting period. This value was determined using the advertised prices of the goods and services and measured how much advertisers would make if they liquidated their inventory.
Bulk selling of credit card info
Credit card information is the most advertised category of goods and services on the underground economy, accounting for 31 per cent of the total. While stolen credit card numbers sell for as little as US$0.10 to US$25 per card, the average advertised stolen credit card limit observed by Symantec was more than US$4,000.
Symantec has calculated that the potential worth of all credit cards advertised during the reporting period was US$5.3 billion.
The popularity of credit card information is likely due to the many ways this information can be obtained and used for fraud; credit cards are easy to use for online shopping and it is often difficult for merchants or credit providers to identify and address fraudulent transactions before fraudsters complete these transactions and receive their goods.
Also, credit card information is often sold to fraudsters in bulk, with discounts or free numbers provided with larger purchases.
The second most common category of goods and services advertised was financial accounts at 20 per cent of the total. While stolen bank account information sells for between US$10 and US$1,000, the average advertised stolen bank account balance is nearly US$40,000.
Calculating the average advertised balance of a bank account together with the average price for stolen bank account numbers, the worth of the bank accounts advertised during this reporting period was US$1.7 billion.
The popularity of financial account information is likely due to its potential for high payouts and the speed at which payouts can be made. In one case, financial accounts were cashed out online to untraceable locations in less than 15 minutes.
Cybercriminals reap revenue
During the reporting period, Symantec observed 69,130 distinct active advertisers and 44,321,095 total messages posted to underground forums. The potential value of the total advertised goods for the top 10 most active advertisers was US$16.3 million for credit cards and US$2 million for bank accounts.
Furthermore, the potential worth of the goods advertised by the single most active advertiser identified by Symantec during the study period was US$6.4 million.
The underground economy is geographically diverse and generates revenue for cybercriminals who range from loose collections of individuals to organised and sophisticated groups.
During this reporting period, North America hosted the largest number of such servers, with 45 per cent of the total; Europe/Middle East/Africa hosted 38 per cent; followed by Asia/Pacific with 12 per cent and Latin America with five per cent.
The geographical locations of underground economy servers are constantly changing to evade detection.
"As evidenced by the report on the underground economy, today's cybercriminals are thriving off of information they are gathering without permission from consumers and businesses," said Stephen Trilling, vice president, Symantec security technology and response.
"As these individuals and groups continue to devise new tools and techniques to defraud legitimate users around the globe, protection and mitigation against such attacks must become an international priority," Trilling said.