Welcome to the dark web, where criminals can steal your identity anonymously.
“The one thing people need to understand is when you’re going into the dark web, you’re going into a very, very bad neighborhood,” says Matt Malone, a cybersecurity expert with Assero Security, based in Austin, Texas.
The dark web is the unsearchable area of the internet. It’s thousands of websites where drug sellers, pornographers and con artists use anonymity tools to hide their web addresses and conduct illicit trades. For criminals on a quest to assume someone else’s identity, it’s the black market where they can buy and sell Social Security numbers and credit card numbers.
“John” is a former cop turned identity thief who served his time, reversed his ways and wishes to remain anonymous. He says the dark web was his hunting ground, where he could buy valuable information on his targets within minutes.
“There are portals on there that have page after page after page of socials,” he says. But to steal an identity takes more than just a Social Security number; it requires many different bits of personal information that are waiting somewhere online for criminals to find and buy.
“I would go on the dark web, and I would look this person up and get as much info as I could – social, birthdate, mother’s maiden name.”
The first step to entering the dark web is downloading a Tor browser and joining a virtual private network (VPN), tools that allow the computer and the user to stay anonymous, both from law enforcement and other criminals.
Once in, criminals then search for the right marketplace, where everything from drugs to weapons to credit card numbers are ready for purchase. These marketplaces won’t pop up in a Google search, but Malone says it takes little effort to find them.
“You bring a laptop in and within 20 minutes I can have you finding Social Security numbers, birth dates, credit card numbers, whatever you want.”
Not only is it easy, but there are even some guarantees you can purchase for a premium price.
“There are guys out there who will tell you \u2018Hey, I have 10 socials with 800 credit scores,’ and you pay them with bitcoin,” John says.
Bitcoin is the currency of choice for the dark web. Since it isn’t controlled by any bank and allows users to make payments anonymously – similar to buying something with cash – bitcoin makes transactions seamless and keeps identities secret.
While anonymity is paramount, relationships still matter – even in a virtual underworld. If a sociable criminal can get invited into a peer-to-peer network that requires invitations to join, it opens up a new world of illegal possibilities.
“It’s like you have a friend who changes their phone number every day,” John says. “There are hundreds of people out there who I associate with every day online, but I’ve never seen their names.”
People who will trade information with each other online and even help each other score major loot offline.
“I’ve actually gone and looked at properties for people that they were buying illegally with an alias,” he says.
A big heist no longer requires criminals to put themselves in harm’s way, robbing trains or banks. It’s now done from the comfort of the criminal’s own home, in secret, and with willing accomplices just a keystroke away – in the dark web.
“They always say there is that one bad apple,” says Malone. “Well there are millions of bad apples. They just have somewhere to meet now.”
See related: Dumpster diving can expose your personal information, Protecting your child from ID theft, Protect your identity in ways chip cards can’t