Gangs lure young to a life of cyber crime, claims McAfee

11 Dec 2006

Organised crime gangs are targeting high-performing students to work as hackers and malware writers, a new report suggests.

Cyber crime is said to represent the fastest growing type of crime globally. McAfee’s second annual virtual criminology report claimed that the recruitment procedures used by cyber criminals to attract new blood echo the tactics used by the KGB during the Cold War, where operatives would approach people on university campuses to work for them.

“Although organised criminals may have less of the expertise and access needed to commit cyber crimes, they have the funds to buy the necessary people to do it for them,” the report said.

The study also found that people as young as 14 are being lured into cyber crime thanks to the cult status of high-tech criminals, as well as the prospect of making large sums of money without the need for balaclavas or baseball bats. McAfee pointed out that the advantage of cyber crime is that the rewards are potentially high and the risk comparatively low compared with traditional crimes like drug smuggling. “Criminals are exploiting the fact that the cyber-world represents a vast domain of global opportunity with virtually no barriers and little risk of detection and punishment.”

Newsgroups, forums and internet cafes are full of people looking for information and passwords who could potentially be recruitment material, McAfee added. “Initially, their aim is fairly harmless and many do not have aspirations of being a serious cyber criminal – they are only password-hunting because they wish to hack into a computer program to see if they can, to see how it works or access a game which is protected.”

The report was compiled with input from Europe’s leading hi-tech crime units and the FBI, McAfee said.

However, one long-standing information security expert poured scorn on the idea that this kind of recruitment is actually taking place. Joel Snyder, senior partner with the US consultancy Opus One and an author of several books on IT security, said such claims were “questionable”. The suggestion that the mafia groups in Russia and elsewhere were recruiting hackers is “a load of crap”, he said.

Popular theory has it that hackers’ motivation is changing from fame to financial reward. According to Snyder, this is simply a function of money being more readily available online now, so that in many cases cyber crime is simply opportunism. “It’s not that people are shifting, but there’s a lot more money on the internet that wasn’t there before,” he told “I don’t see it as organised crime targeting companies – that’s nonsense. The opportunists are so prevalent that they seem to be organised,” he added.

By Gordon Smith