We spoke about this pretty recently on our US edition of the ShadowTalk podcast, but there was a story that piqued our interest about a probably little-known fact: there are criminals out there who are scamming their people.
Recently, a would-be scammer found himself trying to get a refund from the one and only Brian Krebs, not realizing he was speaking with the security writer directly! In short, this poor fellow was spending his bill money on “carding,” the blanket term for credit card fraud, and in turn, got scammed out of Bitcoin by a phishing site resembling the real carding site (ironically, also named in honor of Brian Krebs). According to the research, the scammers’ Bitcoin wallet had enough money to at least purchase a nice midmarket SUV in North America, meaning this guy hadn’t been their only victim.
While there are generally some rules for conduct on various forums and marketplaces that are followed to some extent, (un)surprisingly, there are still some unscrupulous criminals out there, which is thanks in some part to the ease of staying anonymous on the dark web. That got us wondering. Have we seen scams on criminals like this before? You bet your sweet crypto we have. In this blog we’ll dive into the types of reverse scams observed in the cybercriminal underground.
Exit Scamming the Scammers
If 2021 was the year for upheaval with ransomware groups, 2020 was a big year for forums and marketplaces to fall apart. Last year, we wrote about the Apollon market and the fallout when the administrators behind it disappeared, taking all of the forum users’ money with it.
Apollon also likely pulled off several DDoS (Distributed Denial-of-Service) attacks against rival forums, which probably ruffled more than a few feathers during the exit. But that wasn’t the only one. Similar schemes went down with Empire and BitBazaar, with several other markets going dark in 2019 along the same lines.
Because of the nature of their business, these forums and marketplaces are forced to bring buyers and sellers together on the deep and dark web, and some of the people involved have ulterior motives. In retrospect, there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind why these exit scams happen outside of financial motivation. With marketplaces like Empire and Apollon, they appeared to be pretty established and trusted, which is why it was so shocking to users when it happened. As new markets and forums arise to replace their fallen predecessors, users must once again place trust, knowing that there’s a good chance they may end up getting scammed.
Seeing markets like AlphaBay returning makes everyone wonder whether this is part of some get-rich-quick scheme or if there’s a genuine need for yet another marketplace. Either way, for the criminals involved, the need to make money is very real, so it begs the question of whether the risk is worth the reward?
Phishing the Phishers
As we wrote in a previous article about fighting phishing, criminals understand social engineering tactics too well. Once coupled with a convincing site and overall user experience, it would be tough to resist. The hapless victim we spoke about initially was simply one more person to scam, likely falling for the “something for nothing” scam, or, worse, paying for malware that didn’t work, didn’t exist, or would further cause damage to the victim.
As Brian Krebs discussed in his research, criminals took a well-known carding site and made a scam version of it, complete with a spoofed version of the payment system used on the site. To a frequent visitor of the site, it might have rung some alarm bells. Still, for a casual, first-time user who’s likely running off the adrenaline rush of doing something quite illegal, they may have missed the signals.
Strangely enough (much sarcasm here), that wasn’t the first time we’ve seen this. Going back to 2017, a US federal judge sentenced a man for hatching a dark web phishing scheme that netted well over $300,000 and several thousand credentials. A year later, during the golden years of Joker’s Stash, Krebs found a group of web developers in Pakistan who’d managed to impersonate domains to construct a convincing version of the popular carding site. While likely harvesting some credentials, they also managed to scam users out of hundreds of dollars of Bitcoin at a time as a surcharge to view data listed for sale.
More tales abound on the dark web about phishing schemes. Rest assured, as long as dark websites remain tough to find or have to switch to mirror sites because of DDoS or other outages; criminals will likely continue to run these schemes. We’ve seen evidence of plenty of other sites that take advantage of known, popular sites and some of the resulting chatter to steer users away from scam sites; however, the law of averages states that someone will always fall prey to phishing schemes.
See the Chatter Firsthand
Everyone loves some good drama, so while seeing these various schemes to fool the scammers out there does lead to some feelings of schadenfreude, it does give one some pause when you realize that sometimes not even criminals are safe among their kind.
At Digital Shadows, we can use our expertise to see what people are talking about on the dark web, analyze the repercussions of markets and forums that are closing up for good or rebranding, and understand some of the criminal motivations behind campaigns.