All posts by Alice Hutchings

Leaving on a jet plane: the trade in fraudulently obtained airline tickets

Over the years, I’ve had friends and acquaintances ask me about unauthorised transactions for flight bookings made with their credit cards. The question is usually along the lines of, if the airlines know what flight is being travelled, why don’t the police go and meet the passenger?

This is a great question, but it’s often not quite so straightforward. Although Europol co-ordinates regular Global Airline Action Days, during which those travelling may be detained, this does not create disincentives for those actually obtaining the airline tickets.

A few years ago, Professor Nicolas Christin at Carnegie Mellon University mentioned to me that he was aware of cheap airline tickets being advertised on an online black market. This comment led to an in-depth research project, covering all corners of the globe, to understand how these tickets were being obtained, and why.

You can read more about my research here, including how some of these tickets are connected to other crime types, such as human smuggling and trafficking; theft (including pickpocketing and shoplifting from airport stores); smuggling cash and contraband, such as drugs, cigarettes and tobacco; facilitating money laundering (such as opening bank accounts in other countries); and credit card fraud, including making transactions with compromised cards, and operating skimmers.

AlphaBay and Hansa Market takedowns

Yesterday the FBI announced the takedown of the AlphaBay marketplace, a hidden service facilitating the sale of drugs, as well as other illicit products and services. The takedown had actually occurred weeks earlier, and had been staged to appear like an exit scam, where the operators take off with the money.

What was particularly interesting about the FBI’s takedown was that it was coordinated with the activities of the Dutch police, who had previously taken over the Hansa Market, another leading blackmarket. As the investigators were then controlling this marketplace they were able to monitor the activities of traders who had been using AlphaBay and then moved to Hansa Market.

I’ve been interested in online blackmarkets for some time, particularly those that relate to the stolen data economy. In fact, last year a paper written by Professor Thomas Holt and I was published. This paper outlines a number of intervention approaches, including disrupting the actual marketplaces where trade takes place.

Among our numerous suggestions are three that have been used, in combination, by this international police effort. We suggest that law enforcement promote distrust, which they did by making AlphaBay appear to have been an exit scam. We also suggest that law enforcement take over and take down marketplaces. Neither of these police approaches are new, and we point to previous examples where this has happened. In our conclusion, we stated:

Multiple interventions coordinated across different guardians, nationally and internationally, incorporating different bodies (investigative, regulatory, strategic, non-government organisations and the private sector) that have ownership of the crime prevention problem may reduce duplication of effort, as well as provide a more systematic approach with the greatest disruption effect.

The Hansa Market and AlphaBay approach demonstrates how this can be achieved. By co-ordinating the approaches, and working together, the disruptive effects of their work is likely to be much greater than if they had acted alone. It’s likely we’ll see arrests of traders and further disruption to the online drug trade.

Work by Soska and Christin found that after the Silk Road takedown, more online blackmarkets emerged and evolved. I think this evolution will continue, but perhaps marketplace administrators will have to work harder in order to earn the trust of their users.

Exploring the provision of online booter services

A manuscript authored by myself and Richard Clayton has recently been published as an advance access paper in the criminology journal Deviant Behavior.

This research uses criminological theories to study those who operate ‘booter services’: websites that illegally offer denial of service attacks for a fee. We interviewed those operating the sites, and found that booter services provide ‘easy money’ for the young males that run them. The operators claim they provide legitimate services for network testing, despite acknowledging that their services are used to attack other targets. Booter services are advertised through the online communities where the skills are learned and definitions favorable toward offending are shared. Some financial services proactively frustrate the provision of booter services, by closing the accounts used for receiving payments.

For those accessing the paper from universities, you may find the paper here. The ‘accepted manuscript’, which is the final version of the paper before it has been typeset, can be accessed here.

Arresting development?

There have been no arrests or charges for cybercrime events in the UK for almost two months. I do not believe that this apparent lack of law enforcement action is the result of any recent reduction in cybercrime. Instead, I predict that a multitude of coordinated arrests is being planned, to take place nationally over a short period of time.

My observations arise from the Cambridge Computer Crime Database (CCCD), which I have been maintaining for some time now. The database contains over 400 entries dating back to January 2010, detailing arrests, charges, and prosecutions for computer crime in the UK.

Since the beginning of 2016, there have been no arrests or charges for incidents that fit within the scope of the CCCD that I have picked up using various public source data collection methods. The last arrest was in mid-December, when a male was arrested on suspicion of offences under sections 1 and 2 of the Computer Misuse Act. Press coverage of this arrest linked it to the VTech data breach.

A coordinated ‘cyber crime strike week’ took place in early March 2015. In just one week, 57 suspects were arrested for a range of offences, including denial of service attacks, cyber-enabled fraud, network intrusion and data theft, and malware development.

Coordinated law enforcement action to address particular crime problems is not uncommon. A large number of arrests is ‘newsworthy’, capturing national headlines and sending the message that law enforcement take these matters seriously and wrongdoers will be caught. What is less clear is whether one week of news coverage would have a greater effect than 52 weeks of more sustained levels of arrest.

Furthermore, many of the outcomes of the 2015 arrests are unknown (possibly indicating no further action has been taken), or pending. This indicates that large numbers of simultaneous arrests may place pressure on the rest of the criminal justice system, particularly for offences with complex evidentiary requirements.