Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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