Menus Subscribe Search

Prospector

prospector-2

(ILLUSTRATION: MAGOZ)

Call Me i$Hm@eL

• November 06, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: MAGOZ)

For cybercriminals, everything hangs on a nickname.

At the peak of his career in the late-2000s, a mysterious online figure from Eastern Europe attained the position of administrator of DarkMarket. He had climbed to the highest rung of one of the most significant cybercriminal forums—where stolen credit-card data and other illicit goods and services are traded—in history. But before he could do all that, he had to choose a nickname.

For Pavel Kaminski, the reputed Warsaw-based spammer, getting his nickname right was the first step into one of the most elite circles of online criminality. His choice: an homage to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character, the rat sensei Master Splinter. But Kaminski customized the spelling to exude a certain “hackerish” quality. The handle, Master Splyntr, had no particular significance for its creator; but there was thought and strategy in its invention. In fact, for Keith Mularski, the real person behind Pavel Kaminski, there had to be.

Not only was Master Splyntr a creation; so too was the Polish spammer. Mularski was an FBI agent who had fabricated this cover with help from the spam-fighting organization Spamhaus. The agent was not working out of Warsaw but the offices of the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance, in Pittsburgh. It amused Mularski that he had turned to an underground rat for his nickname. With the rat’s help, soon DarkMarket would be down, and major global cybercriminals would be in jail.

To build a trusted brand, there is an incentive to maintain the same nickname over time, but that increases the risk of being caught. Cybercriminals have to carefully balance these competing interests.

IN CYBERCRIME, IT IS difficult for criminals to establish bona fides. They can’t rely on their reputation in the neighborhood, or chest-pounding prowess. They have to build a virtual identity. In this, as one FBI agent who has spent time undercover online told me, a good nickname is “basically all that you have.”

The key to cybercriminal nicknames is less in the specific choice—the actual name hardly matters—than in the intricate function that they play. An effective handle provides anonymity, and can’t be easily used to identify the cybercriminal behind the name. This is the feature that allows users to advertise their criminality openly online. But a nickname is also the foundation of a cybercriminal’s reputation—of what amounts to a trusted brand. Without it they have no presence online. They’re just a newbie—a “noob.”

On the dark Web, it’s difficult to know who you are really talking to: maybe a Polish spammer or an FBI agent in Pittsburgh. Take the elite hacker Max Butler, aka Max Ray Vision. By the end of his dark digital career, he had accumulated at least five cyber identities: Ghost23, Generous, Iceman, Digits, and finally Aphex. Ghosts are a common trope online, but names Generous and Digits, used by Butler when vending stolen credit-card data, implied attractive profits for customers.

As Wired editor Kevin Poulsen explained in his biography of Butler, Kingpin, Butler took on the handle of Iceman when he established the forum CardersMarket—which would become a rival to DarkMarket. He chose Iceman specifically because it wasn’t unique: There were other Icemen floating around the dark Web. Butler thought that if he ever attracted heat from law enforcement, the multiplicity might thwart efforts to identify him. He further spread his risk by keeping his vendor identity, Digits, separate from his administrator identity, Iceman—in case one or the other was “apprehended.” Ultimately, a damaged reputation was what led to Iceman’s demise: He had started a cyberturf war with other carding forums, attracted media attention, and (ironically) made unproven accusations that the honorable Master Splyntr was a fed. So Butler retired Iceman, and up stepped Aphex as the “new” boss of CardersMarket.

Butler and Mularski both put some strategy into their handles. But one former American hacker told me handles are often simply what “sounds cool,” at the time. Veteran carder and film buff David Thomas used the online nickname El Mariachi as a tribute to the Robert Rodriguez film; Robert Schifreen, who hobby-hacked before it was illegal, in 1980s Britain, went by the name Triludan the Warrior, a reference to the antihistamine medication he used.

TO BUILD A TRUSTED brand, there is an incentive to maintain the same nickname over time, but that increases the risk of being caught. Cybercriminals have to carefully balance these competing interests.

One British identity thief I talked with tweaked his handle up to 20 times over his career—but maintained an identifiable (to the right people) strain throughout. The undercover FBI agent knows of Russian cybercriminals who replaced their nicknames every three months. But even these guarded types must subtly alert select collaborators to their new identity, or face starting from scratch.

Then there are those that value reputation over risk, like the hacker and former spammer I met with in Southeast Asia: He has used the same handle, chosen at random from the dictionary, since he was a teenager, through his forays into crime, and even after going straight. “I mean, I’ve got a reputation, I’ve got friends—people trust me,” he explained. Giving it up, he said, would be akin to relinquishing his identity in the physical world and starting again. Today, he works as what is called a penetration tester, a legal hacker of sorts, hired to find holes in a client’s system before a real attacker does. Some clients have discovered his past, and his long-established online reputation. But they seem pleased. They figure it means he’s more effective at his job.

Jonathan Lusthaus
Jonathan Lusthaus is a writer and sociologist specializing in the study of profit-driven cybercrime at the University of Oxford.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.