Nobody is immune to being scammed online—not even the people running the scams. Cybercriminals using hacking forums to buy software exploits and stolen login details keep falling for cons and are getting ripped off thousands of dollars at a time, a new analysis has revealed. And what’s more, when the criminals complain that they are being scammed, they’re also leaving a trail of breadcrumbs of their own personal information that could reveal their real-world identities to police and investigators.
Hackers and cybercriminals often gather on specific forums and marketplaces to do business with each other. They can advertise upcoming work they need help with, sell databases of people’s stolen passwords and credit card information, or tout new security vulnerabilities that can be used to break into people’s devices or systems. However, these deals often don’t go to plan.
The new research, published today by cybersecurity firm Sophos, examines these failed transactions and the complaints people have made about them. “Scammers scamming scammers on criminal forums and marketplaces is much bigger than we originally thought it was,” says Matt Wixey, a researcher with Sophos X-Ops who studied the marketplaces.
Wixey examined three of the most prominent cybercrime forums: the Russian-language forums Exploit and XSS, plus the English-language BreachForums, which replaced RaidForums when it was seized by US law enforcement in April. While the sites operate in slightly different ways, they all have “arbitration” rooms where people who think they’ve been scammed or wronged by other criminals can complain. For instance, if someone purchases malware and it doesn’t work, they may moan to the site’s administrators.
The complaints sometimes lead to people getting their money back, but more often act as a warning for other users, Wixey says. In the past 12 months—the period the research covers—criminals on the forums have lost more than $2.5 million to other scammers, the analysis says. Some people complain about losing as little as $2, while the median scams on each of the sites ranges from $200 to $600, according to the research, which is being presented at the BlackHat Europe security conference.
The scams come in multiple forms. Some are simple, others are more sophisticated. Frequently, there are “rip-and-run” scams, Wixey says, where the buyer doesn’t pay for what they’ve received or the seller gets the money but doesn’t send across what they sold. (These are often known as “rippers.”) Other types of scams involve faked data or security exploits that don’t work: One person on BreachForums claimed a seller tried to send them Facebook data that was already public.
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In one extreme incident on the Exploit forum, an account posted a lengthy complaint that they had provided someone with a Windows kernel exploit and hadn’t been paid the $130,000 they had agreed for it. The buyer said they would pay once they had tested the software but never stumped up the cash. “At each stage, he gave different excuses for delaying the payment,” a translated version of the complaint says.
In some scams, multiple accounts or people appeared to work together, the research says. A user with a good reputation can introduce one person to another. This accomplice then directs the victim to a scam website. In one instance, Wixey says, a user wanted to buy a fake copy of the NFT-focused game Axie Infinity. “They wanted a fake copy of it with the intent of basically siphoning off legitimate user’s funds,” Wixey says. “They bought this fake copy from someone else, and the fake copy contained a backdoor which then stole the stolen cryptocurrency.” The scammer was essentially being scammed through their own scam.
While it shouldn’t be a surprise that criminals often try to con each other—there’s no honor among cybercriminals, after all—the research shows how prevalent it is. In 2017, security firm Digital Shadows pointed out a database that had been created to name and shame known rippers. Similarly, in 2021, the firm found that some administrators on cybercrime forums are scamming their own customers. In the past decade, there have been thousands of complaints about criminals scamming each other, according to threat intelligence firm Analyst1. Meanwhile, a previous analysis from TrendMicro concluded that while forums and marketplaces have rules, they don’t deter scammers. “The perpetrators are typically those who go for quick profits over reputation,” the firm’s 2019 research says.
Arguably, the most organized scam that Sophos’ Wixey spotted stemmed from an investigation into the Genesis marketplace, which has been online since 2017 and sells hotel login details, cookies, and access to data from compromised systems. When researching Genesis, Sophos discovered a faked version of the website appearing high in Google’s search results. “This is a really bizarre case,” Wixey says. “It was a really basic WordPress template and it asked for money, whereas the real Genesis is invitation only.”
As well as not looking like the official Genesis market, the faked version showed other weird behaviors: It linked out to another cybercrime website, the Bitcoin address people could make payments to changed when someone clicked the copy and paste button on the website, and it was also being advertised on Reddit. These signs, Wixey says, hinted the fake could be a “coordinated” effort. Armed with details from the fake Genesis website—including portions of the text and cryptocurrency addresses—the researchers discovered 20 websites that all appear to be connected and run by the same group or individual. The websites all look the same and were registered between August 2021 and June 2022—eight of them are still live.
Almost all of these websites, Wixey says, imitate defunct criminal marketplaces and try to get people to pay to access them. The scam appears to work, too. The researcher says the Bitcoin addresses the scam sites pay into have collectively received $132,000, although he is cautious to say the money may all have come from the false websites. Sophos appeared to find one threat user who may be behind the sites—an actor going by the handle “waltcranston.” Among several pieces of information linking the handle to the sites, someone with the username claimed to have created the fake marketplaces on another forum.
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Despite not being able to fully confirm that waltcranston is behind the network of fake sites, Wixey says that criminals complaining about being scammed and trying to resolve their disputes through arbitration can be a potential rich source of intelligence for investigators.
Because those complaining about scams need to post evidence to back up their claims, they often share screenshots containing more personal information than they may have intended. Sophos says it saw a “treasure trove” of data, including cryptocurrency addresses, transaction IDs, email addresses, victims’ names, some malware source code, and other information. All these details may help to uncover more information about the people behind the usernames or provide clues about how they operate.
In one scamming complaint, a user shared a screenshot that showed someone’s Telegram usernames, email addresses, Jabber chat names, plus Skype and Discord usernames. In others, IP addresses and countries where users may be situated are displayed. Screenshots reveal the software people use, as well as the websites they visit and details about their computer setup. In some instances, Wixey saw details of victims that the cybercriminals had targeted.
Criminals, by the nature of what they’re doing, are usually very cautious about sharing anything that may identify them. Real names are not used; they often will use anonymization services such as Tor. “They typically employ pretty good operational security, but with scam reports, that’s not so much the case,” Wixey says. “So much of this stuff is just not available anywhere else on these marketplaces.” Going forward, the data could prove a useful tool for tracking down some of the criminals. “It’s certainly a starting point,” Wixey says.