Is West Africa Poised for an Underground Market?
Based on an INTERPOL survey featured in a joint Trend Micro-INTERPOL research paper, West African cybercriminals stole an average of US$2.7 million from businesses and an average of US$422,000 from individuals from 2013 to 2015. Scams or various types of fraud, whether simple (like 419 or Nigerian prince scams) or complex (like business email compromise [BEC] scams), run rampant in the West African threat landscape. In fact, most of the online scams we see now may have to do with the increase in the region’s cybercriminal activity volume.
While conducting research on cybercrime in West Africa, we stumbled upon a scamming operation dubbed “Z*N.” In it, the cybercriminal uses keyloggers to gather the email credentials of employees in order to hijack ongoing financial transactions. As such, hijacked funds ended up in accounts that the cybercriminal control.
The cybercriminal mistakenly installed the keylogger onto his own computer. This “slip” allowed us to access his logs and find details about him (personal data) and his operation. It also gave us an insight into what goes on in a typical scamming operation:
Profiling the West African Cybercriminal
West African cybercriminals can be classified into two major types—Yahoo! boys and next-level cybercriminals.
Yahoo boys can be likened to Brazilian cybercriminals who like to brag about their ill-gotten gains on social media. They are around 20−29 years old and have basic technical know-how and so run simpler scams (advance-fee, stranded-traveler, and romance scams). They communicate with fellow cybercriminals through social media and typically follow a ringleader or mastermind. Next-level cybercriminals, meanwhile, run more complex scams akin to “long cons” (tax and BEC scams). They are more tech-savvy and frequent underground forums to obtain tools like malware.
Trend Micro and Law Enforcement Collaboration
The volume of cybercriminal activities in West Africa has been increasing. And the region’s cybercriminals are evolving—going for more complex than simpler scams to gain more profit. Are we bound to see a West African underground market emerge soon?
Although 30% of all the cybercrime reported to law enforcement agencies in West Africa lead to arrests, roadblocks like obtaining information from overseas and finding cybercriminals’ actual physical locations still exist. This is especially true for money mules (in next-level cybercriminals’ networks) who reside abroad. Typically, money mules are fellow West Africans who have bank accounts in the countries their affiliates wish to steal money from. Only a few money mules get arrested though. This could be due to the fact that mules reside outside West Africa and so are no longer part of the region’s police jurisdiction. West African law enforcement agencies thus focus more on arresting IT technicians (who take care of an operation’s infrastructure) and fraud operators (who actually engage in social engineering activities), especially since they reside within the region.