When U.S. prosecutors this week charged two Israelis and an American fugitive with raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in one of the largest and most complex cases of cyber fraud ever exposed, they also provided an unusual look into the burgeoning industry of criminal hackers for hire.
The trio, who are accused of orchestrating massive computer breaches at JPMorgan Chase & Co and other financial firms, as well as a series of other major offences, did little if any hacking themselves, the federal indictments and a previous civil case brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission indicate.
"They clearly had to recruit co-conspirators and have that type of hacker-for-hire," said Austin Berglas, former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's New York cyber division, who worked the JPMorgan case before he left the agency in May. "This is the first case where it's that clear of a connection."
This week's indictments accused a hacker referred to as "co-conspirator 1" of installing malicious software on the servers of multiple victims at the direction of Gery Shalon, the alleged mastermind of the scheme now under arrest in Israel. A second indictment charges a man referred to as John Doe, believed to be in Russia, for an attack on online trading firm E*Trade.
Officials have not said if the co-conspirator and John Doe were the same person, or even if the FBI knows their true identities.
Law enforcement and computer security officials say that outsourced cyber-crime services -- including rented time on networks of previously compromised personal computers and custom break-ins -- are most readily found on underground Russian-language computer forums, where skilled attackers advertise their services.
The forums are tight-knit communities where newbies must be vouched for by multiple known members and pay membership fees that cost thousands of dollars, said Daniel Cohen, who oversees an undercover team at EMC Corp's RSA Security that monitors the forums.
"You can find anything you want for an operation. Hackers, servers, software, code writing. They are all available," said Cohen. Individuals hide their identities even from each other, making infiltration and arrests rare.