Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Credit Card Fraud End Game

Check out this great story in the New York Times magazine about Albert Gonzalez, a big-time credit card fraud operator.

He's sure fallen a long way from his former position as Attorney General of the United States.

But seriously, it's an amazing article. When you've got enough moving parts to your operation, and enough agents tracking you, it's really damn hard to not screw something up eventually. But it's amazing how simple it can be. Like using a known alias as your email address when signing up to AIM, rather than a random combination of letters. The mob is motivated by money - you can be damn sure they wouldn't screw that part of it up. But someone who has a large component of their sense of identity tied up in being a hard core hacker? The esteem of other hackers, and the 1337 h@X0r names that go along with it, are part of the cool.

This line was also fascinating:
Gonzalez relished the intellectual challenges of cybercrime too. He is not a gifted programmer  - according to Watt and Toey, in fact, he can barely write simple code - but by all accounts he can understand systems and fillet them with singular grace.
Exactly. In the end, it's not just about being able to write clevercode. It's about being about to figure out systems, and then execute all the mundane parts involved in not getting caught - hiding identities, laundering money, converting credit card details into dollars without getting busted. Those skills are likely to be just as scarce, if not more, than raw programming smarts.

Guys like him seem only tangentially driven by the money component - it's more about the thrill of the heist, particularly the intellectual achievement. And people hooked on that (like people hooked on lots of drugs) have a hard time letting it go. Same dopamine, different underlying source. They end up like World War 2 bomber pilots - you keep flying missions until you die. It's not that these guys want to get caught. It's just that getting caught is the only way the game ends.

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