Hackers-For-Hire Are Ineffective And Expensive, Google Study Says

Researchers from Google and University of California said that hackers-for-hire services are frauds and expensive.Researchers says they are not threats to individual Google accounts. Photo: Richard Patterson | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Researchers from Google have yet again found a new and compelling reason why people should not hire hackers online, even if their offers are enticing enough for some people to fall for. New research published last week by Google, and researchers from the University of California, San Diego reveals that hackers-for-hire services available online are scams and ineffective.

The research methodology includes contracting 27 hacking services, and as expected, a considerable chunk of them did not respond to the inquiries made by the researchers, while 12 of them responded but never actually attempted to launch an attack. The researchers noted that only five service providers ended up launching assaults against the test Gmail accounts.

“Using unique online buyer personas, we engaged directly with 27 such account hacking service providers and asked them with compromising victim accounts of our choosing,” researchers said.

“These victims, in turn, were ‘honey pot’ Gmail accounts, operated in coordination with Google, and allowed us to record key interactions with the victim as well as with other fabricated aspects of their online persona that we created (e.g., business web servers, email addresses of friends or partner).”

Additionally, out of the 12 who responded to the inquiries of the researchers, nine of them have said that they are no longer working in the hacking business and it turned out that the rest are straight up scams.

The services offered online was said to be charged between $100 and $500 and interestingly, none of the service providers used automated tools for the attacks that they promise their clients.

The attacks are instead involving social engineer, with the hackers using spear-phishing techniques to target attacks for each intended victim. Researchers highlighted that while some of the hackers have asked them for information about the intended victims of the supposed attacks, others didn’t even bother and chose to employ a “re-usable email phishing templates.”

Interestingly, one of the five hackers who ended up launching an attack to the test Gmail account tried to infect the victim with malware rather than straightforwardly phish for account credentials. Once the malware infected email was opened and the malware installed in the victim’s system, the hacker will have virtual remote control of the entire system and would have been able to recover passwords and authentication cookies from local browsers.

Another hacker was able to bypass two-factor authentication ((2FA), the safety mechanism that requires the account holder to use another verification process independent from password authentication such as through a code sent to the connected SMS number in the account. Researchers reveal that the hacker was able to direct the decoy victim to a spoofed Google login page and successfully scraped for both passwords as well as SMS coded while effectively checking the validity of both in real time.

The hacker, says the researchers, who know that he needs to bypass a 2FA actually (and usually) double his prices citing the complexity of the task. An increase in the prices for hacking Gmail accounts have been observed to grow throughout the years with $125 per account in 2017 to $400 today. Researchers posit that the improved security protocol causes the price hike by Google.

“As a whole, however, we find that the commercialized account hijacking ecosystem is far from mature,” the research team said. “We frequently encountered poor customer service, slow responses, and inaccurate advertisements for pricing.

“Further, the current techniques for bypassing 2FA can be mitigated with the adoption of U2F security keys,” they added.

In the end, the researchers concluded that while there are capable hackers, most of those who offer hacking services are either ineffective or just plain frauds. As a consequence, they said that ignoring scam sites, they didn’t view hacker-for-hire services as an actual danger for user accounts. The researchers cited high prices for hacking each account and the low quality of services the service providers provide as reasons.

“However, despite the ability to successfully deliver account access, the market exhibited low volume, poor customer service, and had multiple scammers. As such, we surmise that retail email hijacking has yet to mature to the level of other criminal market segment,” the researchers wrote in their study’s abstract.

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