Shadowcrew: Web Mobs

By Deborah Gage Print this article Print

Crime is now organized on the Internet. Operating in the anonymity of cyberspace, the Shadowcrew and Web mobs like it threaten the trust companies have spent years trying to build with customers, online.

They operate under names such as carderplanet, stealthdivision, darkprofits and the shadowcrew. They buy and sell millions of credit card numbers, social security numbers and identification documents, typically for less than 10 bucks apiece. And they create sites and services to breed more skilled, like-minded organizations. Here's how the growth of electronic commerce is threatened by the operations of these Web Mobs.

Andrew Mantovani, David Appleyard, Brandon Monchamp and more than a dozen other members of the Shadowcrew were at work on their computers. Sure, it was 9 p.m. But their business—which, authorities say, was auctioning off stolen and counterfeit credit and identification cards—was booming.

In the past two years, the Shadowcrew's 4,000 members, according to the U.S. Secret Service, ran a worldwide marketplace in which 1.5 million credit card numbers, 18 million e-mail accounts, and scores of identification documents—everything from passports to driver's licenses to student IDs—were offered to the highest bidder.

Many of the credit card numbers sold on the site were subsequently used by Shadowcrew's customers, who had no intent of paying for what they bought. The result? More than $4 million in losses suffered by card issuers and banks, says the Secret Service, which is charged by the U.S. government to investigate counterfeiting, credit card fraud and computer crimes. If the Shadowcrew had gone unchecked, the losses would have totaled hundreds of millions of dollars, the agency says.

Shadowcrew is a Web mob, say law-enforcement officials: a highly organized group of criminals. Unlike the American Mafia or the Russian syndicates, however, these Web mobs work solely in the online world.

Members know each other by computer alias, interact with each other through the Internet, and commit their crimes in the darkness of cyberspace. The electronic marketplaces they establish to trade their illicit wares can be set up, and disbanded, with little more than keystrokes.

"They basically can pop up anytime and anywhere," says Secret Service Special Agent Larry Johnson.

In the last year, U.S. law-enforcement officials have publicly identified a half-dozen of these seemingly loose collections of thieves that have grown into multinational enterprises. The Secret Service says they operate under names such as Carderplanet, Stealthdivision and Darkprofits. Scott Christie, a former U.S. Attorney who initially prosecuted the Shadowcrew case, says he expects the number to grow.

In fact, these mobs are designed to foster more crime and criminals on the Web.

Much like La Cosa Nostra, members of Web mobs don't have to break into a bank to rob it. Instead, they provide a framework and services for criminals to trade in their chosen stock—stolen credit cards and identity documents. And their efforts, including the "commerce" sites where they trade in stolen "merchandise," will only accelerate what is already a thriving trade in numbers that are regarded on the Web as currency.

The amount of goods and services purchased with fraudulently obtained personal identification exceeded $52 billion in 2004, according to a release put out last month by the Federal Trade Commission. Businesses, from banks to online merchants—maybe even your company—bear much of the cost. But the initial, direct loss isn't the greatest threat posed by groups such as the Shadowcrew.

By promoting and facilitating credit card fraud and identity theft, these groups can shatter the online trust companies have established with their customers, says Howard Schmidt, the chief security strategist for eBay and a former cybersecurity adviser to the White House. That's because they destroy confidence in the Internet. "If McDonald's has well-lit restaurants and the best food and the best prices, but people get mugged in the parking lot, they won't go there," he says.

This article was originally published on 2005-03-07
Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.

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