The FBI says it has taken down a popular site used by carders and other criminals to exchange stolen information and credit card data, the result of a two-year-long investigation by the bureau and other international police agencies. The site, known as DarkMarket, served as a kind of hub and meeting place for low-level online criminals, the Internet equivalent of pickpockets working the local mall. The key difference being, of course, that our wonderful system of tubes allows these guys to work on a massive scale and do unprecedented damage with minimal effort. The FBI says the investigation, which involved extensive undercover work and is still ongoing in some places, resulted in 56 arrests.
The bureau also estimated that the operation prevented $70 million in economic losses. Now, I’m certainly happy to see the FBI and other agencies around the world making a dent in the cybercrime problem. It’s a global scorpion’s nest that’s gone unaddressed for way too long. But I’m always skeptical when I see this kind of estimate thrown around with no data to back it up. I’m sure the bureau based its statement on something, but we’ll never know what it is. But, the reality is that whether the number is accurate is basically irrelevant. It could be off by an order of magnitude, and it’s still just a grain of sand on the giant cybercrime playground. Online crime is such a low-risk, high-reward activity that criminals who as little as five years ago would have been selling drugs or running kidnapping rings are now setting up dozens of loosely organized online crime cells around the world, and raking in millions in virtually risk-free profits. Not good times.
The FBI knows this very well, but it also knows the psychological value of making even a small dent in the global cybercrime infrastructure. It’s a method that has served the bureau well in its decades-long fight against traditional organized crime: take down the lower-level guys and then use them as leverage to work your way up the ladder. Cybercrime is obviously a different animal, with its worldwide scope and loose, fluid structure. But progress is progress, no matter how small.
UPDATE: Kevin Poulsen on Wired’s Threat Level blog has an excellent post about this investigation, which lays out the evidence that the FBI’s cybercrime group itself was running DarkMarket for the last two years.