In Venezuela, cybercrime emerges as a lucrative gig

Cybercrime is flourishing in Venezuela as the country’s deepening economic and political crisis drives thousands into the underground criminal world, according to a report released Thursday by IntSights, a global threat intelligence company.

IntSights analysts discovered large-scale and sophisticated efforts to steal personal information from people in Latin America who work for a variety of companies, such as banks and retailers, and then either sell that information online or use it to collect even more data. The hackers are based in Venezuela and neighboring countries, like Colombia, where many Venezuelan refugees have settled.

These information gathering operations are particularly lucrative for Venezuelans as they are sold for cryptocurrency such as bitcoin, a welcome alternative to the country’s own currency, which has endured rapid inflation.

And they’re not subtle about it. Specific information about the operations, like who the hackers are, where they are located and even hackers’ phone numbers are surprisingly easy to find, according to Charity Wright, an analyst at IntSights. Normally, experienced hackers operating in countries such as Russia, China and Vietnam hide by taking on alternate identities and profiles to throw people off.

“They don’t seem too concerned about hiding,” Wright said. “I think it’s because they don’t sense law enforcement will do anything.”

Venezuelan opposition activists demonstrate against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, on July 6, 2017.Federico Parra / AFP via Getty Images file

Venezuela’s hyperinflation has caused a deterioration of the national currency and, in turn, many Venezuelans have turned to cryptocurrencies. The International Monetary Fund says inflation of the Venezuelan bolivar, the country’s currency, is expected to hit a startling 200,000 percent this year. A cup of coffee that cost 150 bolivars in November 2018 now costs 18,000 bolivars, according to Bloomberg.

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Venezuela was once one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America, with the world’s largest oil reserves and vast gold deposits. But decades of corruption and mismanagement under socialist rule have led its economy to ruin. In the past year, protests have turned deadly after crackdowns by the government of President Nicolás Maduro. The country has also endured sizable blackouts.

Venezuela-based cybercrime efforts span a variety of common digital misdeeds including large-scale email phishing efforts and malware campaigns. Sensitive information collected through successful hacks is then sold on various public websites and on the dark web.

The report indicates victims don’t receive much cooperation from the government when they file complaints because of the economic and political turmoil in the country. As a result, local law enforcement is turning a blind eye.

Censorship in Venezuela has caused hackers to openly use social media. The government blocks many websites such as CNN and El Nacional, a popular national newspaper. Even the walkie-talkie app Zello, which was popular among Venezuelans during the protests, has been blocked. People have turned to virtual private networks (VPNs), which help sidestep internet censorship, and the Tor browser, a free and open-source software that enables anonymous communication. But even VPNs and Tor have been banned by Venezuela’s state-owned internet provider, CANTV.

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Venezuelans now rely heavily on social media apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter, as well as the messaging app WhatsApp for information. Because of the censorship, cybercriminals have also turned to social media apps to collaborate and find work.

Wright said many of the Venezuelan cybercriminals IntSights found appeared to use their own photos on social media and accurate descriptions of where they live, making it easy to find out who they are.

“Cybercurrency makes cybercrime easier,” Wright said. “For a long time, Bitcoin was used by people that were into technology,” she said.

Cryptocurrencies have become a widely used form of payment in Venezuela, according to Wright. The Venezuelan government created its own digital currency, dubbed the “petro,” in February 2018.

More than 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years to escape low wages, a collapsing health care system, the absence of basic services and the lack of security. The majority are settling in neighboring Colombia.

With limited work opportunities, many Venezuelans have turned to cybercrime as an alternative for making money.

“The Venezuelan underground has risen to the surface with the anarchy and chaos of the Maduro regime,” said Tom Kellermann, head of cybersecurity strategy for cloud computer company VMware and a global fellow for cyberpolicy at the Wilson Center.

While the most prolific cybercriminal underground in South America is in Brazil, considered one of the top four most sophisticated in the world, Venezuela’s hacking community has become more brazen because of the chaos that is currently ongoing in the country, according to Kellermann.

The report has a bleak outlook for the future.

“The Maduro regime’s priorities do not include protecting infrastructure or global enterprises at the moment,” the report states. It says that even if corporations went directly to Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaído – recognized as the legitimate leader by the U.S. and about 50 other nations – “there is little that his government can do to control the cybercrime emerging from Venezuela.”

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