Cyber Crooks Leave Traditional Bank Robbers in the Dust

Organized cyber criminals stole more than $25 million from small to mid-sized businesses in brazen e-banking heists in the 3rd quarter of 2009 alone, federal regulators said last week. In contrast, traditional stick-up artists hauled less than $9.5 million out of U.S. banks over that same time period last year.

Speaking at the RSA Security Conference in San Francisco last week, David Nelson, an examination specialist with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), said online banking attacks against small businesses of the sort I have chronicled countless times over the past year netted thieves $25 million between July and September of 2009.

I wondered how that stacked up against real-life bank robbers here in the U.S., so I had a look at the FBI‘s published bank crime statistics for that same time period last year. Turns out, traditional bank robbers committed a total of 1,184 bank robberies during those three months, netting slightly more than $9.4 million (including $3,071 in travelers checks).

In fact, real-life bank robbers stole a total of just over $30 million in the first three quarters of 2009, just $5 million more than cyber crooks did in the third quarter of last year alone.

Small wonder that the haul from cyber bank robberies has overtaken that of physical heists:  Cyber thieves take far fewer risks to life, liberty and limb than do real-life bank robbers. In that same three month period last year, the FBI says bank robberies at bricks-and-mortar institutions caused five deaths — all them perpetrators of the crime.

What’s more, the perpetrators of these incessant attacks against small businesses banking online for the most part reside in countries that are traditionally beyond the reach and influence of U.S. law enforcement. Sure, bank robbers occasionally kill people (more often themselves) while they’re stealing your money, instead of silently lifting it out of your bank account from afar like cyber thieves. That alone makes them a more emotional high-value target for the feds. But let’s face it: Traditional stick up artists are a lot easier to collar. For one thing, by necessity they are all here in the United States.

In addition, while traditional bank robbers are limited to the amount of money they can physically carry from the scene of the crime, cyber thieves have a seemingly limitless supply of accomplices to help them haul the loot, by hiring so-called money mules to carry the cash for them.

I can’t help but notice one other important distinction between these two types of bank crimes: The federal government sure publishes a lot more information about physical bank robberies that it makes available about online stick-ups.

Indeed, the FBI’s bank crime stats are extraordinarily detailed. For example, they can tell you that in the 3rd quarter of last year, bank robbers were more likely to hold up their local branch between the hours of 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. on a Wednesday than at any other time or day of the week; they can tell you the number of tear gas and dye packs taken with the loot, the number of security cameras activated, the number of food stamps taken, even what percentage of suspected perpetrators had illegal drug habits at the time of the robberies. About the only thing the stats don’t tell you is what brand of jeans the perpetrators were wearing and whether the getaway car had cool vanity plates.

What do we get about e-crime statistics from the federal government? One guy from the FDIC giving a speech at the RSA conference. And as we heard from the FDIC last week, the federal regulators could start collecting (and hopefully publishing) these kinds of statistics from America’s banks, but that would require an okay from the White House.

One of the first posts that I published at krebsonsecurity.com was a story about how much time and effort I put into trying to get the government to acknowledge how much cyber crooks were stealing from small to mid-sized businesses last year in these online banking attacks. Given this latest disclosure, it’s not hard to see why the banks and feds would be reluctant to part with that information.

The FBI hasn’t yet published the 4th quarter 2009 bank crime statistics, but if the $25 million cyber heist figure is representative of a quarterly trend last year — and the first three quarters of stats from last year’s FBI stats don’t deviate much in the 4th quarter — cyber crooks will have stolen well more than twice as much as traditional bank robbers last year in the United States.

I’m quite certain that if the infamous Willie Sutton had his heyday in the present culture, Sutton’s fabled answer to the question of why he robbed online banks would have been, “Because that’s where the *easy* money is.”

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