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How High Level Cybercrime Groups Are Formed and Organized

High Level Cybercrime Groups
By |Published On: June 24th, 2024|5 min read|Categories: Ransomware|

Organized Cybercrime Groups

There are different categories of cybercriminals that can come together to form organized cybercrime groups. These include bored teenagers getting involved in petty online crimes, individual actors primarily motivated by financial gain, politically or ideologically motivated hackers, and fully fledged organized crime syndicates. However, the most sophisticated and damaging cybercrime operations tend to be carried out by the latter.

Successful organized cybercrime groups have a role-based structure where individual members contribute different specialized skills. One of the most common roles is that of the “penetration tester,” hackers who are particularly adept at gaining unauthorized access to computer systems and networks through vulnerabilities. Groups may have a single top-tier penetration tester or a team working in coordination.

Other core roles include technical experts who develop malware payloads or configure ransomware, negotiators who communicate with victims during extortion scenarios, money launderers skilled at obscuring illicit proceeds, and organizers who coordinate the overall criminal operation. This specialization allows groups to efficiently carry out complex multi-stage attacks.

Reputation is everything

Online forums devoted to talking about hacking and digital crime are the birthplace of many collaborations and upcoming formalized cybercrime organizations. By offering services or samples of their work, willing specialists will gradually create a name for themselves.

For example, a skilled penetration tester might share technical details and evidence of successfully compromised systems to advertise their abilities. Others demonstrate skills like malware authoring that are highly valued within the criminal community. Gradually, as reputations are earned, direct business relationships form between regular forum members needing certain services filled and these individuals.

Restricted Membership

cyber partnership


An example of a cybercriminal looking for a partnership

A notable example of the membership and ranking structure found on cybercrime forums can be observed in the Darkode archives leak. From 2007 to 2015, Darkode was an invite-only forum for cybercrime. It served as a platform for cybercriminals to exchange hacking techniques, buy and sell illegal goods and services, and work together on illegal schemes. Darkode was only accessible to invited members, and new users needed the endorsement of an existing user to be approved by administrators.

darkode membership


An example of the membership system available on Darkode

After an administrator granted a user access to the forum, new members joined at level 0 or below, and they were frequently promoted from there after earning the trust of other members and offering helpful knowledge or skills.

cybercriminal skillsets


An example of a cybercriminal offering a specific skillset

Ransomware Operations

One of the most visible and financially driven areas within organized cybercrime currently involves ransomware operations. Well-practiced cybercrime teams compromise systems, deploy ransomware payloads, and demand payments, often in cryptocurrency, in exchange for decryption keys.

raas affiliate

Ransomware as a Service

Example of a RaaS affiliate program

The most formidable ransomware syndicates function like modern businesses with defined corporate structures, marketing, customer service protocols, and common diversification into extortion affiliate models.

Typical roles include programmers, distributors, negotiators, money launderers, and even “help desk” technicians. These hacking enterprises can generate hundreds of millions annually from worldwide victims and have grown into transnational networks that span continents.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some common questions people have about the formation and operations of organized cybercrime groups:

Why do some groups become bigger than others?2024-06-17T19:51:45+01:00

Some groups are able to become bigger due to their success and profits. Groups that are particularly successful at compromising systems, stealing data or funds are likely to reinvest those profits into expanding their operations. This enables them to take on more projects and recruit/pay more members. Large groups may also be able to dedicate resources to specialized tasks like development, operations security, and money laundering.

Do these groups engage in research and development?2024-06-17T19:50:30+01:00

More sophisticated, well-funded cybercrime groups do dedicate some resources towards research and development activities. This could include developing new exploits, evasion techniques, malware variants and updating toolkits based on emerging threats and weaknesses that get detected.

Is the motive always financially focussed?2024-06-17T19:51:01+01:00

While financial gain is usually the primary motivation driving large cybercrime groups, some may also have political or ideological motives beyond just monetary profits. However, most large, sustained cybercrime operations still require substantial funding to cover operational costs. So even for groups with additional non-financial goals, the financial aspect of their activities remains very important to the continued survival and growth of the organization.

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