A new report from Symantec is the first to quantify the scale of the illicit online economy, one where Russian and East European gangs run mass-produced credit card scams, and card details swap hands on exclusive chat forums for as little as 7p. If that all sounds remarkably well-organised, you'd be right: Symantec describes it as a ‘genuine marketplace' that is ‘apeing real business models'.
The company monitored the world's servers over the past year and found more than 69,000 fraudsters advertising their services, sending 44,321,095 messages to underground forums. Credit card numbers were the most popular item on sale, comprising 31% of all the goods on offer, while bank details made up 20%.
So how did Symantec manage to get a total sum for such a shadowy world? The $7bn figure comes from multiplying the average amount of used on a stolen card, $350, by the total number of cards it saw being put up for sale. Added to that, Symantec reckons that fraudsters plundering all the bank accounts offered for sale would net up to $1.7bn. While the figures aren't entirely accurate - many of the cards offered may be invalid, or accounts closed - Symantec said it is ‘indicative' of the ‘potential worth of the market'.
It's easy to believe - credit card usage is on the up (at least it was until recently), as are online banking and retail, while criminals are developing ever more ingenious ways of acquiring the illicit details to meet the soaring demand. Phishing scams, just one means of stealing people's precious digits, are becoming increasingly personalised and prevalent: a new malware (malicious software) programme is created every six seconds. The scams are becoming so convincing that even Dave DeWalt, chief exec of McAfee, key rival to Symantec's Norton software, was almost taken in recently by a message purporting to be from his bank.
So if even the experts are vulnerable, what hope the rest of us, as we flock online and flash the plastic in the run-up to Christmas? If only there were a saviour out there who could defend us. Wait a sec, Symantec happens to be the world's biggest manufacturer of internet security software...