Pistols to PCs: Criminal Syndicates, Gangs, and Cybercrime

Originally my interest in gangs was purely scholastic – I researched street gangs for a history course. Since then, however, that pursuit has evolved (devolved?) into a preoccupation which now teeters between hobby and obsession.

That will likely come as no surprise to readers familiar with the article I recently wrote for ShoeMoney on the Japanese Mafia’s newsletters.

Unfortunately, for someone who could happily spend an afternoon wandering a neighborhood to find and study its spraypainted gang tags (and has done a time or two), my homebase of Boise, Idaho isn’t exactly the ideal hunting ground. While some people, weirdos, might consider the relative lack of gang activity here a bonus, I find it inconvenient.

Gangster Disciples in Idaho-The Street Gets Sophisticated

However, that doesn’t mean there’s no gang presence in rural states like Idaho. In fact, it was an account of rural gang activity that both got me hooked on the subject and revealed how sophisticated street gangs had become.

A few years ago the Idaho State Police (ISP) suddenly found their previously robust drug bust numbers on the I-5 corridor dropping dramatically.

After a long stretch of head scratching, the word spread through the state’s law enforcement community that a group of Chicago’s infamous Gangster Disciples (GDs; aka Black Gangster Disciples) had bought a house just outside a little Idaho farming town. (The local police were apparently equal parts terrified and overjoyed to encounter a house full of inked-up Gangster Disciples in their tiny hamlet.)

Tired of being pulled over by the ISP for out-of-state plates, the GDs had purchased their property to secure some Idaho vehicle registrations.

Cooperating with local Hispanic gangs in Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and Montana, the GDs had wholesome-looking mules transport the dope. Several disreputable-looking gangsters would then pile into a clean decoy car with out-of-state tags to draw the heat from law enforcement. And while the ISP were busy detaining and searching the decoy vehicle, the mule would cruise past with a trunk full of dope.
1Gangster Disciples… in Idaho?!

Gats to Gadgets

The point of that anecdote is: criminal organizations evolve. Years back, a law enforcement official would have been laughed at for suggesting that members of a massive African-American criminal syndicate based in Chicago would be buying property in Nowhere Farmville, Idaho to cop state tags; cooperating with local Hispanic gangs; hiring mules; and employing decoys to smuggle drugs through and into the state. No one would laugh now.

Still, the prospect of street gangs moving off of dope corners and behind keyboards is still considered unlikely by a number of experts in the field. For instance, a study funded by Google Ideas reported that gangs don’t use the internet to commit complex cybercrimes (or to recruit new members). According to the study, gang members use the internet in a manner pretty much identical to that of their peers: they watch videos, visit social media sites, and generally surf the web. Although, as a group, they do definitely prefer more violent fare and are 70% more likely to commit less complex crimes – selling drugs, making threats, illegally downloading media, etc.

Likewise, an article from TechWeekEurope recounted the findings of two experts who spent several months studying Russian hacker forums found that the majority of Russian cybercriminals were petty small-timers. They were “geeks not gangsters”, according to the article, most making a $50 or $100 bucks here and there flipping credit card numbers.

To some degree, the “gangs and mafia groups control cybercrime” debunking crowd has a point. The great majority of cybercrime probably isn’t perpetrated by organized criminal enterprises. The reality of cybercrime is a great deal like the reality of analog crime: yeah, the vast majority of street crimes – petty theft, fights, drunk driving, vandalism, even most burglary and robbery or small-time drug dealing- is likely committed by people without gang affiliation.

However, when the big picture is considered by national law enforcement figures, it’s not the petty criminals and their petty crimes keeping the feds up at night, it’s the organized syndicates engaging in large scale drug importation, human trafficking, complex fraud, and multimillion dollar robberies. And, once again, the same is true of computer crime.

From Russia with Bugs

Well, the undisputed reigning champion of worldwide cybercrime is the Russian Mafia. And organized Russian and Eastern European criminal groups aren’t just the biggest minority among the planet’s many cybercriminals or something. They’re the big show.

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Imagine a keyboard where the back of that chair is.

A computer forensic organization doing an analysis of European computer crime were shocked to discover that one-third of all online thefts and cyberattacks were committed by the same Russian/Eastern European gang. That’s not attacks and thefts perpetrated by all Russian syndicates but by one single gang. That gang raked in somewhere around $4.5 billion in 2011, and that’s a conservative estimate. One gang stole more money on the internet than the Gross National Product of 40 or so small countries. It’s estimated that 85% or more of cybercrime originates from a Russian or Eastern European country.

Altogether, the (lowest) estimate puts the cost of global cybercrime somewhere around $110 billion a year.

Russian crime groups are able to operate on such a large scale for a few reasons. That they’re already organized criminal syndicates helps. Plus, in many of the less-monied regions of the world, including much of Russia and Eastern Europe, there’s simply more money to be made by hunting in the richer cyber-habitats of Europe and North America.

That same poverty and lack of a coordinated, well-funded and well-prepared law enforcement infrastructure means that local police agencies are more easily bribed and lack the resources to pursue cybercriminals even if they wanted to.The anonymity of cybercrime obviously works in their favor, as does the fact that better-organized and funded cyber-policing groups in the west find it nearly impossible to cut through the international red tape which keeps them from making arrests.

The result of all that is an entrenched, experienced, well-funded, well-equipped, well-organized network of computer criminals that often operate with an incredible level of brazenness. One computer crime boss recently produced and released a professionally-made video that promised a Ferrari to the hacker who could net him the biggest cybertheft score.

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The new weapon of choice.

So Who Else is In On It and What Do They Do?

While the Russian have cut themselves out an 85% piece of that cybercrime pie (delicious), the other 15% is no small potatoes – that still represents many billions of dollars. Non-Slavic perpetrators can be found pretty much anywhere. China, of course, has a healthy hacking community. The Mexican drug cartels are increasingly coming around to the fact that computer crime is way lower risk than say… smuggling pounds of hard dope across a border and engaging in a war with other cartels. That low-risk/possibility-for-great reward dynamic is precisely what’s made cybercrime so popular everywhere, in fact.

Brazil and a number of African nations, Nigeria and South Africa being big players, have definitely got their foot in the door. Japan, Korea and other Asian countries, many of the European countries, and pretty much anywhere else that people and computers hang out together, you’re gonna find some hackers.

In the United States, our cybercriminal community was once virtually entirely populated by those guys (and gals) with thick glasses who talked about writing code, how stupid it is that Firefly’s off the air, and Dungeons and Dragons. At least, the ones who were less burdened by a conscience. Now, however, the terrain has changed.

Again, the aforementioned experts who remain unconvinced that gangsters in the US are trading in their dimebags and pistols for modems and mouses, have a point. America gangs have been far slower than their international counterparts to get into digital hustling. No doubt America’s wealth, incredibly lucrative drug trade, and the money that can be made on the streets plays a part in that trend. It’s unclear how long that will last, however.

American gangs are catching up:

  • In 2012, members of the large, well-organized, dangerous (and now largely Hispanic “sureño”) street gang Armenian Power orchestrated “one of the largest identity theft schemes in California history”, according the US attorney’s office. They netted over $2 million. They did so with a sophisticated scam that included credit card “skimming” from ATMs combined with fraudulent check kiting. Skimming – stealing card numbers and other information from ATMs and cash registers – is responsible for worldwide theft in excess of $1 billion dollars a year worldwide.
  • In 2010, soldiers in the African-American prison gang Black Guerrilla Family organized a pre-paid debit card clone caper to buy drugs, make payoffs, and do a number of other naughty things.
  • In 2009, a group of Lincoln Park Bloods in San Diego were busted for a complex mortgage fraud scheme involving online manipulation of information.
  • In 2008, law enforcement and fraud investigators in Southern California were already speaking out against and making arrests for phishing and identity theft scheme perpetrated by Long Beach Insane Crips, the Mexican Mafia and their sureño soldiers, 18th St., Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and a number of others.
  • The earlier mentioned Gangster Disciples commonly use real estate and internet purchases to launder drug money.
  • Additionally, an FBI gang threat assessment reported that Bloods, Crips, Nuestra Familia and their norteño soldiers, the Latin Kings, Aryan Brotherhood, Texas Syndicate, Florencia 13, the Vice Lords, plus a number of Asian Gangs, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, and “neighborhood gangs” were likewise engaging in cybercrime.

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At last count (in 2011), there was something like 33,000 active, violent gangs operating in the US, with 1.4 million members. That’s a 40% increase from the 2009 numbers. So where those statistics are at now is unclear but it can be assumed that they’re higher still than 2011’s figures. That’s a lot of gangsters with access to a lot of computers.

If there’s a silver lining here, however, it’s that if a criminal organization is going to take someone’s money, better that they do it with a keyboard than a knife or gun.

For the average Joe (or Jane), the best way to protect info and assets is practicing smart cyber-security. Switch up usernames and passwords for different accounts; DO NOT use either “Password” or “12345678” as your password(s), or combinations of the two – “Password1234”; avoid using personal information for passwords, like your name, your child’s or spouse’s name, and/or birthdays; shred or otherwise destroy sensitive financial info before throwing it out; and be very wary of messages from friends who send you “funny”, “awesome”, or “crazy” videos or pictures via email or social media.

Anything you’re not sure about, or that seems out of character for your acquaintance (particularly if you don’t know them that well) – don’t open it. Get in touch with them and ask them about the message.

Otherwise, be smart, be safe, investigate any bank or financial anomalies quickly, and don’t send your social security number and banking information to members of organized crime syndicates, even if it sounds fun.

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