An iPad with a retina display, a blue iPhone and a Beats by Dr. Dre headphone set, please.
This may read like a Christmas wish list of a spoiled child, but there’s more: a red dot aimpoint for a rifle, six high-end hard drives from Intel, a GPS rescue device for sailors. These are uncommon requests for Santa Claus to receive, even from adults. This list is real though, and part of a much longer wish list of money launderers who instruct mules to ship expensive goods to Russia.
We’ve been following a group of cybercriminals who launder stolen money in a couple of ways. Typically, a money mule receives a wire transfer from a compromised account. Then, he is instructed to send the money overseas, using a legitimate money transfer system like Western Union. The other method they use tricks Internet users into believing they are going to work for a legitimate company that ships expensive goods like iPhones out of the US. In reality, these users will start to work for cybercriminals.
Figure 1. Typical reshipping fraud site
They are asked to receive expensive equipment at their US home address and then ship these goods to a second address, which is also in the US. From there, the goods are repackaged and sent to an address in Russia by a second mule. Initially, the mules are requested to pay the costs of the shipments themselves. After 10 successful shipments, they supposedly can reimburse expenses and are promised an extra bonus on top of their base salary. We think these reimbursements and salary payments never happen.
Internal documentation of the money launderers suggests that their employees are indeed not treated very well. First, they are described as “drops” and second, they cannot expect to keep their job longer than 20 days. An internal note says: “the optimal time to work with a drop is 20 days. An order made close to or after 20 days is not likely to succeed.” After 20 days the drops get dropped themselves.
This cynical way of using throw-away workers extends to Russia. All steps for dealing with the drops in the West are clearly written in Russian documentation, which we were able to download. This documentation could be for a cybercriminal who cannot memorize a thing, but we think they are meant as a guideline for temporary Russian-speaking personnel that constantly get renewed, just like their unfortunate colleagues in the US. Also, somebody has to be on the receiving end of the parcels that are sent to Russia and the Ukraine. It is likely these workers are temporary and get replaced when the money launderers think they pose a risk to their operations.
The internal documentation of the money launderers clearly explains in Russian how to instruct drops in the West. A new drop should first complete a test order. If that doesn’t happen within 5 days, the drop is considered “dead”. All goods that get ordered should be worth more than $300. Internet users who realize they got hired as drops for illegal purposes are clearly marked as “not trustworthy” or “not willing to work”: no parcels should be sent to them.
In table 1 we summarized the items that were shipped by a couple of hundreds of mules. In total, shipped items are worth about $500,000 and as far as we can tell, all parcels were either sent to a suburb of Moscow or to Kiev, Ukraine.
Table 1. Money Launderers’ list of popular items
The money launderers seem to take special orders too. Some months ago, they shipped hundreds of aimpoints for close range combat. These aimpoints are the more expensive red dot models for which export restrictions apply. More recently, numerous GPS units are being shipped to Russia. For these units there are export restrictions as well. Because of the export restrictions, the aimpoints and GPS units could be sold at a premium outside the US by the money launderers.
These launderers have an extensive network of reverse proxies where they host their mule recruitment sites. Trend Micro’s Smart Protection Network blocks these sites, so that customers won’t become a victim of reshipping fraud.