The chain of command of a cybercrime gang is not unlike the Mafia, an evolution that shows how online crime is becoming a broad, well-organized endeavor.
The latest research from Web security company Finjan, released on Tuesday, outlines a pyramid of hackers, data sellers, managers and malicious programmers, all working in a fluid management structure in order to profit from cybercrime.
Finjan researchers joined forums where credit card details and other data is sold, knowns as "carding sites." They impersonated interested data buyers while collecting intelligence on the operations' management hierarchy, said Yuval Ben-Itzhak, Finjan's CTO.
"We kind of had a feeling that something had changed there," Ben-Itzhak said. "There is something even more organized there."
When a person's credit card details are stolen, the details are sold on the carding Web sites, where salespeople offer a menu of available information. Those salespeople don't exploit the data they possess but rather seek to sell it to someone who does. Those salespeople also aren't responsible for the hacking.
The data is supplied by affiliate networks, or groups of hackers who get paid to infect machines with malicious software and steal data. Those networks often have a campaign manager, someone who oversees a particular set of attacks.
At the top of the hierarchy are the boss and his deputy, who handle the distribution of crimeware kits used for hacking. The boss doesn't engage in hacking and acts as an administrator for all of the activity.
Finjan's map of the cybercrime gang comes from chatting with data sellers on ICQ and asking them where the data originates, Ben-Itzhak said. ICQ was one of the first instant messaging programs. Participants are often only know by a number.
"We managed to build up trust," Ben-Itzhak said. "Of course, they don't know we are from Finjan."
Sellers offered "dumps" or batches of credit card numbers: MasterCard Standard and Visa Classic card numbers and security codes go for $15 each, with Visa Gold or Corporate details going for up to $90.
Data often comes with a guarantee, with many data sellers offering to replace cards that don't work or are reported as stolen. But Finjan and other security vendors have said that the price of a credit card number has been falling as the market as the amount of sensitive data on the market has increased.
Finjan broke off contact with the data sellers and hasn't reported it to the authorities, although Finjan does report if researchers come across servers where the stolen data is stored, as the company revealed last month.
The company doesn't have much of an idea where the cybercriminals are physically located. The touch-and-go game on instant messenger is one way to gain intelligence: "It's really about knowing your enemy," Ben-Itzhak said.