Internet fraudsters, Misha Glenny told an intimate but fascinated crowd at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival, are not motivated by money. They learn their craft young, usually between 13 and 15, and, Glenny enforced, are not the kind of people who would commit crimes anywhere but sat at their screens. “One thing cyber criminals don’t employ is violence,” he said, adding that generally, computer hackers do not have the best personal and social skills in the real world.
He also said that for the current generation of parents of teens, it is “absolutely hopeless” to try and understand or even prevent sons and daughters’ cyber criminal activity. He told stories of teenage whiz kids who can access the private data of just about anywhere, including banks, electricity and water power stations, and the biggest companies in the world; Google, Sony and RBS have all recently been hacked and tampered with.
Glenny told the cautionary tale of Max Butler, an American who referred to himself as ‘Iceman’ and who was paid by companies to try and hack their websites to expose vulnerabilities. Butler was sent to prison when he was found to have done his job, but not without leaving a little hole in the armour he could wiggle through.
The audience grew more wide-eyed as case stories flashed up on Glenny’s presentation –for example the man in Australia who house was sold from underneath him without him having a clue. Nigerian hackers had hacked Roger Mildenhall’s emails, sold his house through a local estate agent in Perth for £350,000 and transferred the money to a bank in China. It was only upon receiving a call from Mr Mildenhall, who was somewhat alarmed when people turned up at his house ready to move in, that the estate agent double-checked their paperwork and realised the signature was wrong.
But which police force would deal with this nightmare situation – Nigerian, Australian or Chinese? Glenny casually acknowledged that cyber crime is “hardly ever” reported. With companies, he said, it is usually to “avoid losing face” and deter further hacking; with individuals it is usually a case of complete confusion about who to go to, if they even realise they’ve been hacked at all.
Glenny’s book, DarkMarket, takes its name from the “online department store” market of websites that sell private information, namely Carderplanet.com, which Glenny called “the Mumsnet of criminals.” A card skimmer to read the details of cards at cash machines? Yours for $7,000. Or perhaps a cloned credit card? The Carderplanet people test the cards themselves before they’re delivered, in case you should happen to be ripped off by a criminal.
Glenny believes the government is “missing a trick by not investing resources in investigating cyber criminals’ psychology. They’re not conducting enough research about why hackers do what they do and finding them young.”
To research his book, Glenny approached the very criminals who were making millions on websites like Carderplanet, and said it took “months before they’d agree to communicate with me, and even longer to meet them.” Glenny research meant that he walked a fine line between criminals and the authorities, but he never experienced any pressure from either side to reveal his sources. If anything, he said he was used as a “middle man” to pass information from one side to the other. “Neither side tried to extract information, but I will send requested messages to either side, with a health warning.”
The audience was left gobsmacked and more than a little paranoid, as this relatively unreported underworld had a shaft of light shone on it. One wise audience member asked for advice on how to prevent their children getting involved in cyber crime, and how to avoid being a victim. Glenny replied that all the current generation of parents can do is sit tight and wait for their kids to have kids, because “only then, by the time they have children will they have a better idea of what to look out for. They know much more than we do.”
And just to increase the fear, Glenny added: “And don’t put anything in an email you wouldn’t want on the front page of the Daily Express.” Simple but effective advice from the Ross Kemp of cyber crime.
DarkMarket by Misha Glenny is out now, published by Bodley Head.