Financial transactions made on cybercriminal forums tend to look remarkably similar to transactions made on legitimate platforms. You have a trading website, you have a seller offering goods or services, and you have a buyer looking to make a purchase.
If a buyer on a forum likes what they see, rather than adding the item to their virtual basket, they usually contact the seller via the forum’s built-in messaging function. The buyer may ask for more details about the offering and/or some proof that the vendor’s advertisement is genuine. The vendor will usually shift the conversation away from the forum to a more secure, private messaging service such as Jabber, via which they may respond and potentially reveal a few screenshots or details about the goods or services on offer. Following this interaction, both parties may then agree to use a forum escrow service to complete the transaction.
While this pattern of behavior has been adopted as common practice across cybercriminal forums, Digital Shadows has observed a significant development in relation to forum escrow services. On Russian- and English-language cybercriminal forums on the clear and dark web, vendors are increasingly asking interested buyers to place money in a forum escrow service before they will provide further details about the goods or services they are selling. Prior to this, interested buyers would place money in an escrow service after the goods or services had been verified. This change has not been mandated by forums, and appears to be an organic shift occurring within the cybercriminal community.
In this blog, we introduce the concept of escrow services across cybercriminal forums, highlight how escrow transactions were facilitated on forums prior to this development, and then speculate as to what might explain this shift in cybercriminal behavior.
What is an escrow service?
An escrow service is a financial agreement that uses a trusted third party to ensure a transaction clears when two parties negotiate a deal. This process is favored by both negotiating parties because it ensures the seller has been paid and the buyer has received their goods. While an escrow service is typically used to secure a real estate opportunity (and other large transactions), threat actors in the cybercriminal landscape also see the need for this secure method of transaction.
Forum escrow services are in no way a new practice. It’s been the preferred means of transacting on cybercriminal forums in many different language-based communities for some time now. On the prominent Russian-language forum Exploit, for example, escrow services have been around since at least 2007, and users looking to transact via the forum’s escrow service must abide by strict rules (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Exploit admin user enforcing escrow rules, among general site rules
Alongside the escrow policies, those looking to use an escrow service must acknowledge a commission fee, with rates varying from site to site. On English-language forums, commission fees for an escrow service can amount to 2% of the deal, whereas on Russian-language forums, commission can vary from 3 to 10%. The lower commission fees on English-language forums could point to the fact that these services are more immature than their Russian-language counterparts and may represent an attempt to encourage more members to use the services. Russian-language forums likely charge a higher fee for their escrow services because the options available are well established and run in a highly professional manner.
Figure 2 : Advertisement on the dark web forum Torum, promoting escrow service
What explains this dark web forum shift?
Requiring a buyer to put money in escrow before seeing proof of the goods increases sellers’ security and may have developed in connection with the following factors:
- Expert sales pitch: Nature dictates that once committed to a specific course of action, human beings have a tendency to adhere to a specific and consistent path. Ever the experts in the field of influence, savvy cybercriminals are engaging with and capitalizing on this human flaw. Once funds are committed, it is less likely a would-be buyer will back out of a transaction; it’s win-win for the vendor.
- Scammers vs. serious buyers: Scams are rife on cybercriminal forums and this move will help to weed out faux buyers, saving vendors both time and money. This new development also discourages those less serious forum users from engaging in high-value transactions, meaning vendors can trade with elite buyers who are committed to conducting a successful purchase.
- Increasing professionalism of cybercriminals – Threat actors on cybercriminal forums are increasingly adapting their tactics and techniques to avoid detection and ensure that they only trade with reputable buyers who are dedicated and prepared to commit money to receive high-quality, valuable goods and services.
In a world where clear and dark web cybercriminal forums and marketplaces are seemingly threatened by more secure technologies and repeated shutdowns and/or exit scams, the wider adoption of a vendor-focused escrow service may revive forum activity. Forums provide a centralized platform to trade and cybercriminals seem reluctant to move away from this preferred method, instead opting to develop ways to make forums more secure.
As with any of our research, Digital Shadow will continue to observe the cybercriminal landscape, including the dark web, to explore any updates and developments on cybercriminal forums.
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