Hacking large companies as Albert Gonzalez is alleged to have done can be profitable. But stolen credit cards and other data may not sell for as much on the black market as you expect.
The black market economy of the cyber-world is always busy, especially in an age of massive data breaches like the ones that occurred at Heartland Payment Systems and Hannaford Brothers.
According to research from Kaspersky Lab posted Aug. 17, U.S. credit cards are not worth as much as you might think. While analyzing malware, Kaspersky Lab virus analyst Dmitry Bestuzhev came across a Website with pricing information for the credit cards swiped by cyber-crooks. The highest prices belonged to German credit cards, which sold for $6 (USD) a piece. U.S. Visa cards sold for $2.
"It's certainly difficult to say how many sites like this there are now," Bestuzhev said. "I believe it's not very many because the bad guys don't need to largely market their business. Their customers know them already and if there is a new one, it is passed along by others. It's a kind of club where cyber-criminals 'know each other' in terms of online life."
They also provide customer service—there was technical support available in German and English.
In some ways, cyber-gangs like the one behind the Heartland and Hannaford breaches may be victims of their own success. According to some researchers, the sheer amount of stolen information being sold in the cyber-underground has pushed down prices. In 2008, for example, researchers at Finjan Software reported that credit card and bank account numbers with PINs were going for $10 to $20 each in some cases.
Still, given the possible profits in breaches involving hundreds to thousands of cards, it should come as little surprise that identity theft malware is on the upswing. PandaLabs, the research arm of Panda Security, said 71 percent of the 37,000 pieces of malware it finds daily are Trojans, many of which are designed to steal bank details or credit card numbers.
Luis Corrons, technical director of PandaLabs, said one possible reason for this is the economic crisis.
"This in conjunction with organizations that have made a business out of selling personal information on the black market, such as credit card numbers, PayPal or eBay accounts … we have also seen an increase of the distribution and infection of this kind of malware through social networks," Corrons said in a statement Aug. 20.
While the potential profits of a data breach can be high for a hacker, conversely, they can be financially damaging for a business. According to a survey by the Ponemon Institute, the average cost of a data breach from detection to notification and response was $202 per record in 2008. That's an increase from $197 per record in 2007. For businesses, this can put the cost of a data breach into the millions.
Then there is, of course, the cost of lost business. For those reasons, it is important for businesses to stay vigilant.
"In any number of recent data breaches, including Heartland and TJX , the entity isn't aware that that a breach has occurred until some time later," said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle. "Since PCI compliance requires integrity monitoring, it's puzzling that these companies didn't know there was something unauthorized going on in their networks."
By Brian Prince