Marketing in the Black Market Economy
Would you believe that vendors selling stolen goods in the underground economy resort to some of the same marketing methods used by legitimate companies in the non-underground world? After all, it’s not easy being a vendor in the underground, and fraudsters making their living by being vendors in the underground have a lot of competition to beat.
To begin with, if you run your own automated store in the underground, cultivating a large enough list of suppliers who provide you with fresh batches of compromised credit cards on a regular basis is challenging, and it’s not even enough to keep your business running. Naturally, you’ll also need to actually attract customers to your store, which is easier said than done. There are hundreds of credit card stores in the underground all vying for the scammers’ business. And then there are the underground vendors who still sell stolen credit cards the “old fashioned way,” by chatting with existing and potential customers via ICQ or other instant messaging programs.
So, what can a vendor in the underground do to attract business? Why, marketing of course!
Underground Marketing 101
In order to start generating business for himself, the first thing a vendor in the underground typically needs to do (once he has goods to sell, of course) is get it out there that he is now open for business. While there are a few ways to do this, one of the most popular and typically the first methods fraudsters use is simply making an announcement among the various messaging boards that exist in the underground.
Some vendors take the extra step to become a “verified vendor” in underground forums. They do this by offering free samples of their goods to forum administrators and waiting for their approval that the goods are “legit.” The coveted “verified vendor” title can immediately establish the vendor as a trusted member of the forum and increase business.
Still, being a “verified vendor” rarely cuts it these days. Popular messaging boards can be very crowded, and a single vendor’s post can drown in the sea of posts by other vendors. That’s one of the reasons why vendors can opt for yet another marketing option that involves paying administrators for ad space.
That’s right, ad space. In the underground economy, vendors of stolen goods employ banner advertising techniques just like legitimate vendors do all the time. And they also follow the same rules as legitimate vendors: their banner ads should be appealing, colorful and animated for the best chances of catching potential buyers’ eyes and winning their clicks over other vendors’ ads.
Did you think sales and promotions only existed at the mall? Nope. Promotions is another marketing tool underground vendors commonly employ. Every now and then, vendors might create a sale, reducing prices for a select type of stolen credit card (for example, “50% off all U.S. credit cards!”). These sales enable vendors to keep their threads on bulletin boards active and cultivate a base of recurring customers.
The road to power…
Believe it or not, with competition in the black market economy being as stiff as it is these days, all the efforts we’ve just described combined rarely suffice in generating enough business to make a vendor’s shady business worthwhile.
The real trick to being a successful underground vendor today is putting up a memorable, uniquely-designed shop that’s unlike any other. And to get that done, lots of vendors are opting for tongue-in-cheek store names and direct references to popular culture in order to stand out.
For example, here is one recently opened underground store:
This design, which mimics the TV show “House of Cards,” isn’t limited to the login page, but is even reflected in the store’s credit card search page:
Another interesting example is a store called Brian’s Dumps. While not as remarkably designed as the “House of Cards” themed store, Brian’s Dumps banks on one of the most known names in the underground economy, Brian Krebs.
(Screen shot from www.krebsonsecurity.com)
Brian Krebs is a popular security blogger who often writes about the underground economy on his website, krebsonsecurity.com. As a result, he is the single most hated individual in fraudster circles. Krebs has had drugs shipped to his home by fraudsters in their attempt to incriminate him. He’s had a SWAT team sent to his house. And as he wrote himself in one of his recent blog posts, “KrebsOnSecurity worked with three different banks who each acquired multiple customer cards from all of the batches of cards that showed up for sale on Brian’s Dump. Eerily enough, all of the merchants identified were from small restaurants and bars in and around the Washington, D.C. area, the hometown of Yours Truly.”
BadB tops them all
No marketing trick to date has trumped BadB. BadB, also known as Vladislav Horohorin, is a Ukrainian-born fraudster who sold credit cards from the early days of the underground. For years, he was truly one of the most wanted cybercriminals out there, and he was eventually arrested in the French city of Nice in August 2010.
To promote his store, BadB had a series of cartoon videos aimed to encourage fraudsters into using his services. Some of these videos are still available on YouTube (warning: some contain explicit images).
As the black market continues to bloom, fraudsters will continue to search for ways to have their businesses stand out from the crowd. The competition will most likely get stiffer and we can only expect the vendors will continue to up their ante.
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