The media is in an uproar at present, reporting on one cyber incident after another. Adobe, Target, Neiman Marcus, Home Depot, JP Morgan – these breaches are just the tip of the iceberg in the cybercrime arena. The Russian underground forums serve as fertile ground for planning cybercrime-motivated breaches worldwide – programming the malicious software, distributing it and sharing knowledge about the most profitable usage, selling the stolen data (such as credentials, etc.). Let us take a deeper look at the internal structure of these forums and the norms of behavior there.
While many forums have free registration, others require payment (Cybercriminals will never miss an opportunity to profitJ). Some of the forums that ask for registration fees do not contain useful information, and the fee is merely a farce, while for others, the fee is a means to keep poor or noob hackers away from the “big guy discussions.” Some of the forums ask potential candidates to fill out a detailed registration form, clarifying exact capabilities/programming languages they know, while others go one step further and send different hacking tasks to the applicants, demanding proof of their professional level. Many forums have strict policies about filtering out the registrants and very few people are accepted.
When it comes to personal contacts between the seller and buyer, the first choice is the Jabber messenger. Sometimes, one of the sides will request an OTR (Off-the-Record, allowing private conversation using encryption and elimination of all traces of the conversation) protocol for Jabber. Besides, exchanging messages via PM (private message) – the private mailbox on each forum is another popular means of communication. Users wishing to connect via Jabber are sometimes asked to authenticate themselves via private message beforehand – indicating the high level of confidentiality and security concerns.
ICQ is also used, although it is not very common and is perceived as a communication method for less experienced hackers.
On the underground, you will never see any payment method that would somehow enable identification of the parties in the transaction. Naturally, no credit cards, PayPal accounts or money transactions are accepted – only virtual currencies are used. BTC is rather popular, as well as PM (Perfect Money), LTC (Light Coins), WM (Web Money) and other virtual currencies.
Most of the forums maintain a well-established system of escrow services provided by an official forum member appointed by the administrator. In exchange for a reward, usually a percentage of the transaction value, he mediates between the buyer and the seller, keeping the money until the goods are supplied. He also checks that the product offered matches its description.
The reputation of the members is one of the pillars of Russian underground forums. Despite the fact that each forum has its own scoring system, all have a common principle: forum members rate each other, based on the threads they post. For instance, by providing useful advice or uploading malware, the author will receive more points. Another reputation booster is the number of posts, as well as seniority on the forum that defines the status of the user: beginner, intermediate, specialist, etc. Certain threads are available only to members with a minimum numbers of posts.
Furthermore, some forums ask for monetary deposits that are displayed next to the user’s name, indicating his reliability. If monetary conflict arises, the sales thread will often be suspended until the issue is clarified. If no solution is found, the seller incurs a “ripper” status, thus losing the chance to sell anything ever again on the forum, unless he changes his nickname.