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Laundering Money Online: a review of cybercriminals methods

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Money laundering is a critical step in the cyber crime process which is experiencing some changes as hackers and their criminal colleagues continually alter and optimize payment mechanisms. Conducting quantitative research on underground laundering activity poses an inherent challenge: Bad guys and their banks do not share information on criminal pursuits. However, by analyzing forums, we have identified two growth areas in money laundering: online gaming and micro laundering.
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Laundering Money Online: a review of cybercriminals’ methods
Jean-Loup Richet
Tools and Resources for Anti-Corruption Knowledge June, 01, 2013 - United Nations Office on Drugs
and Crime (UNODC).
Executive Summary
Money laundering is a critical step in the cyber crime process which is experiencing some
changes as hackers and their criminal colleagues continually alter and optimize payment
mechanisms. Conducting quantitative research on underground laundering activity poses an
inherent challenge: Bad guys and their banks don’t share information on criminal pursuits.
However, by analyzing forums, we have identified two growth areas in money laundering:
Online gamingOnline role playing games provide an easy way for criminals to launder
money. This frequently involves the opening of numerous different accounts on various
online games to move money.
Micro launderingCyber criminals are increasingly looking at micro laundering via
sites like PayPal or, interestingly, using job advertising sites, to avoid detection.
Moreover, as online and mobile micro-payment are interconnected with traditional
payment services, funds can now be moved to or from a variety of payment methods,
increasing the difficulty to apprehend money launderers. Micro laundering makes it
possible to launder a large amount of money in small amounts through thousands of
electronic transactions. One growing scenario: using virtual credit cards as an alternative
to prepaid mobile cards; they could be funded with a scammed bank account with
instant transaction and used as a foundation of a PayPal account that would be
laundered through a micro-laundering scheme.
Laundering Money Online: a review of cybercriminals’ methods
Millions of transactions take place over the internet each day, and criminal organizations are
taking advantage of this fact to launder illegally acquired funds through covert, anonymous
online transactions. The more robust and complex the various online marketplaces become the
more untraceable methods criminals are finding to pass ‘dirty’ money into online accounts and
pull ‘clean’ money out of others. The anonymous nature of the internet and the ever evolving
technologies available allow numerous opportunities for online money laundering operations to
take place. Many of these methods involve using a ruse to pull unsuspecting participants into
their money laundering schemes, often with serious financial and legal consequences for victims.
The best way for law abiding citizens to avoid becoming complicit in such illegal activities is to
stay informed as to the methods criminals are using to pull them in.
We all know the oldest ‘physical’ placement methods of money launderers: cash smuggling,
casinos and other gambling venues, insurance policies (launderers purchase them and then
redeem them at a discount, paying fees and penalties but receiving a clean check from the
insurance company), hawalas / fe chi’en or the black market peso exchange (informal value
transfer system), shell corporations, and so on and so forth. But there is also a number of online
money laundering schemes currently being used by criminal enterprises to pass illegally received
funds through legitimate accounts, and new ones are popping up all the time. Some of the most
widespread schemes are detailed in this article.
Methodology
Ostensibly, conducting quantitative research on underground laundering activity poses an
inherent challenge: Bad guys and their banks don’t share information on criminal pursuits. Our
approach utilizes an online ethnography, observing large online hacker forums and communities
and researching topics related to money laundering on their databases. We used a large variety of
keywords, from those linked with payment solutions to those associated with black markets.
After a first review, we filtered our data, and discarded irrelevant forum threads. We then
analyzed the content of these threads and synthesize our findings into the following categories.
The classics: from money mule scams to black markets
Liberty Reserve
Frequently associated with carding communities
1
, Liberty Reserve (LR) had a bad reputation
amongst some Black Hats boards
2
.
But there were very few ways to receive money anonymously, and LR was one of them. Thus LR
was widely advised when one wanted to launder money:
1
Cybercriminals involved in credit card fraud.
2
Internet forum boards which aim to share advice on cybercrime and fraudulent methods.
How did it work?
Exchanging money could be done through the use of verified exchangers such as ebuygold.com -
they have been verified by Liberty Reserve. There is a lot of fly-by-night firms and scammers in
this shady market. Because of that, peers markets are growing. The following screenshot is an
Illegal Money
acquired
through clic
fraud,
carding, etc
Exchanger -
Verified
exchanger or
peers
will change $ or
any e-currency
into LR currency
LR account
Cash out
Money is
laundered
through VCC,
prepaid cards
or exchanger
(LR to Western
Union)
example of a peers market (e-currency auction service, member to member), a marketplace for
anyone who wants to exchange currencies..
However, the closure and seizure of Liberty Reserve will not end these fraudulent practices
there are numerous competitors and alternatives (WebMoney, Bitcoins, Paymer, PerfectMoney
and so on)…
Money mule scams
Guide posted on a board about how to use a money mule to launder hacked bank account
This is a method you’re probably familiar with if you check regularly your spam e-mail box. It
involves a very friendly e-mail from someone from a foreign country claiming that they need
your help to transfer a large sum of money to your country. For your help with the transfer you
will receive a percentage of the transfer, which, according to the e-mail, will amount to several
thousand dollars or more. All you have to do is supply your bank account information.
Some of the senders claim to be Princes, government agents, or other high ranking officials from
the country they claim they are from. They are written in a very gracious and humble tone, and
very politely ask for your help, as if you’d be doing them a huge favor.
While most people know that any inquiry requiring your personal financial information should
immediately throw up a red flag, some folks do fall victim to this kind of scam. While some of
these scammers will simply try to steal money from your account, others will attempt to transfer
large sums of money stolen from other accounts to you. They’ll have you send the majority of the
funds to an alias account of theirs in exchange for your cut. Once the bank realizes the transaction
was illegal, you will be held accountable, as the stolen funds were withdrawn from your account.
Other scams involve supposed job offers. With so many individuals interested in work from
home jobs, there are a countless number of potential victims here. The ‘job’ that you’ll be doing
involves accepting money transfers to your account and passing the money on to alias accounts
set up by your so called employer. Of course, the transfers you’ll receive will contain illegally
obtained funds, and when law enforcement traces the funds, it will lead them to you, not the
criminals who illegally obtained the money.
Black Market Peso Exchange
Source: Australian Institute of Criminology
Over $7 billion each year is laundered through Colombian corporations from Mexican and
Colombian drug cartels. This is done through the Black Market Peso Exchange or BMPE. The
BMPE is actually a covert system of banking that helps drug dealers to exchange American
dollars for pesos. These dollars are then purchased by Colombian businessmen and used to buy
American goods which are then sold back home in Colombia. This traditional form of crime is
enhanced with ICT: Drugs could be sold through illegal online marketplaces such as the Silk
Road, in e-currencies like bitcoins in order to increase the difficulty to trace the operation, while
brokers use blackberry messengers and negotiations are conducted through the internet.
The BMPE is similar to hawalas meaning transfer in Arabic or fe chi’en in China: they are
international underground banking systems. Online money laundering techniques are
interconnected with these traditional methods, which are no longer ‘localized’. Online operations
contribute to complexity the audit process and thus hide the illegal source.
Increasing trends in online money laundering
Online Games as obfuscators
Online role playing games provide an easy way for criminals to launder money. This frequently
involves the opening of numerous different accounts on various online games to move money.
Online games, an increasing source of interest in hacking forum boards
Other clever scammers have found a way to launder money using online games. Massively multi-
player online role playing games (MMORPGs) provide an easy way for criminals to launder
money. This frequently involves the opening of numerous different accounts on various online
games.
Since MMORPGs use credits that players can exchange for real money, it is easy to do. Popular
games for this type of scam include Second Life and World of Warcraft for instance.
While the market increase, new services emerge for gold sellers; those websites also provide
prepaid cards useful for money laundering purposes
MMORPG players very rarely know the people that they meet online. Citizens from dozens of
different countries play these online games. Using the virtual currency systems in these games
criminals in one country can send virtual money to associates in another country.
Then, the virtual money can be transferred into real money, with the criminals leaving no trace of
evidence authorities could follow back to them.
Underground forums share money laundering best practices and tips
It is important to note that the game developers are not associated with the scam at all, and in
many cases are involved with the efforts to stop such crimes from occurring.
Recent years have seen the emergence of virtual communities and online gaming; scams related
to MMORPGs will rise with these virtual worlds.
Micro laundering: micro-payment, micro-jobs and m-commerce
Cyber criminals are increasingly looking at micro laundering via sites like PayPal or,
interestingly, using job advertising sites, to avoid detection. Moreover, as online and mobile
micro-payment are interconnected with traditional payment services, funds can now be moved to
or from a variety of payment methods, increasing the difficulty to apprehend money launderers.
Micro laundering makes it possible to launder a large amount of money in small amounts through
thousands of electronic transactions. One growing scenario: using virtual credit cards as an
alternative to prepaid mobile cards; they could be funded with a scammed bank account with
instant transaction and used as a foundation of a PayPal account that would be laundered
through a micro-laundering scheme.
Cleaning money might be an issue for some beginner money launderers… They frequently ask for
partnership on forum boards.
For larger amounts of money, hackers’ forum boards provide advice on how to launder PayPal
money while minimizing the commission
Laundering online money is a growing topic of interest on hackers’ forum boards; in term of
trends, the use of CCNOW is a favored PayPal alternative.
Using online job marketplaces are an increasing recommendation
Online jobs marketplaces such as Freelancer or Fiverr provide an interesting legitimate covert for
money launderers. Job marketplaces could be used as anonymizers, escrow services providing a
useful way for covering up the launderer’s traces.
Fiverr micro-services ranging from $5 to $30 could also be used to reduce the footprint of a
scammed account: amounts are small enough not to trigger a review under banking regulations.
New money mule scams related to these platforms emerge. Indeed, many marketplaces users
have been receiving emails asking them to join into a partnership involving the use of their
accounts to sell services. They will usually provide some reason that they can’t open their own
account, and offer to pay you a percentage of every transaction made through yours. These
supposed contractors will put up many fake auctions, and ask you to transfer the funds from them
to alias accounts. This is an evolution from the precedent model (classic money mule scam) as it
no longer involves bank transfers but e-currency transfer (from Paypal to Bitcoin), and no longer
concerns a large sum of money send once but small amounts send multiple times.
The spread of mobile banking has been especially rapid and broad in Africa and Russia (see M-
Pesa - Kenya's mobile wallet - and SMS Coin for instance) while global M-commerce market has
grown steadily. It is now possible to send money from prepaid mobile card to criminal partners
that will convert the credit into cash. This method provides criminals anonymity with a quick and
easy access to money from nearly anywhere in the world.
Virtual credit cards are a growing alternative to prepaid mobile cards; they could be funded with
a scammed bank account with instant transaction and used as a foundation of a paypal
account that would be laundered through a micro-laundering scheme.
Because online and mobile micro-payment are interconnected with traditional payment services,
Funds can now be moved to or from a variety of payment methods, increasing the difficulty to
apprehend money launderers. It is possible to launder a large amount of money in small amounts
through thousands of electronic transactions.
Conclusion
As we spend more time and money online, opportunities for criminals to involve us in their
money laundering scams will only continue to grow. This will create an increasingly difficult
situation for the various law enforcement agencies that are already being put to the test by the
cunning of such criminals and the myriad untraceable means they have discovered to launder
illegally obtained money.
As individuals, it is our responsibility to stay informed, and always be aware of the methods these
criminals may use to involve us in their laundering schemes.
Jean-Loup Richet
About the Author
Jean-Loup Richet is Information Systems Service Manager at Orange and Research Associate at ESSEC
Business School - Institute for Strategic Innovation & Services. He graduated from the French National
Institute of Telecommunications, Telecom Business School, and holds a research master’s from IAE/HEC
Paris.
Expert in IS Security, Jean-Loup Richet has been a speaker at several national and international
conferences in Information Systems and has published articles in academic and trade journals. He is also
a lecturer in IS Risk Management at Sorbonne Graduate Business School (International MBA).
... As the sociologist Ole Bjerg usefully reminds us, money laundering did not originate with the advent of CCs ( [3] p. 69). National currencies and a host of other digital technologies currently present equal if not greater money laundering challenges [148]. CCs currently provide less of a threat and more of an opportunity to global efforts to combat this illicit practice. ...
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Crypto-coins (CCs) like Bitcoin are digitally encrypted tokens traded in peer-to-peer networks whose money laundering potential has attracted the attention of regulators, firms and the wider public worldwide. This article assesses the effectiveness of the global anti-money laundering regime in balancing both the challenges and opportunities presented by these novel ‘altcoins’. Two main arguments are advanced. First, the implications that crypto-coins presently pose for global anti-money laundering efforts stem less from the threats of their illicit uses as digital currencies and more from the opportunities presented by their underlying blockchain technologies. Second, despite several shortcomings, the risk-based approach pursued by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) strikes an effective balance between the existing threats and opportunities that crypto-coins currently present. Rather than a conclusive evaluation however this article stresses the need for continual monitoring and investigation of the wider ethical implications raised by CCs for global efforts to combat money laundering in an era of rapid technological change.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.