A deeper look into what makes criminals tick


The growth of e-commerce has opened a bevy of new options for the legitimate shopper while unlocking temptations for the scammer. These nontraditional “customers” vary in terms of their aims, methods and levels of sophistication, but share one common trait — each has unique habits that leave a distinctive digital footprint that can be analyzed, studied and categorized.

Contemporary research into online loss prevention is rooted in sophisticated technology and requires the talents of a specialist skilled in researching and implementing effective solutions. Forter Inc., a leader in providing automated online security solutions, has leveraged its experience to develop a set of six archetypical “personas” that represent the particular style of an online thief. The company recently published an e-book describing each persona as a tool to help online retailers maintain vigilance.

“Every persona has its strengths and its weaknesses,” according to Forter. “Understanding their nature and how to work with them will help online merchants to guard against each type of fraudster — and avoid confusing them with good customers who happen to share certain ‘risky’ characteristics.”

The Teen Fraudster is the most numerous but the least streetwise. The Teen Fraudster steals not as part of a business strategy to resell merchandise, but mostly to sustain his own lifestyle. Frequently he comes from a middle-class background in a first-world country and has grown accustomed to a fair amount of creature comforts. Typical items of interest include pizza, drugs, video games or tech gadgets.

This guy has a rudimentary amount of technical knowledge sufficient to pull off his scams, but is not nearly as smart as he thinks, making him fairly easy to catch. But the high number of Teen Fraudsters can be a special risk factor.

The Unfriendly Local is the Teen Fraudster’s figurative older brother. Demographically he’s quite similar, but with a bit more experience he’s managed to take the art of the steal to the next level, absconding with items similar to those favored by his younger counterpart to supply his local street trade.

The items he’ll traffic in are diverse, and can include low- or high-end merchandise — anything he knows there’s a market for. His focus on volume will motivate him to steal items in bulk and frequently repeat the same process — a habit that can force him to get sloppy and expose him to capture. And like his junior partner, his over-confidence makes him low-hanging fruit.

The Factory Fraudster operates as a cog in a much larger machine. Situated in a third-world nation, teams of these guys will typically work under a boss who is reasonably proficient in the art of online thievery. The top guy will steal victims’ credit card and other data in bulk and divide it up between his underlings. Together, they’ll ply their trade on a battery of computers, usually concentrating on cheap goods that look expensive and can easily be sold locally on the street — splitting the proceeds with the boss.

The Factory Fraudster represents perhaps the saddest of all the personas. In the absence of any real employment opportunities, he resorts to online thievery to fulfill his basic material needs.

The Omnichannel Fraudster is a master of duplicity, and an expert in sniffing out and exploiting loopholes in the payment infrastructure. A common example is where he’ll set up two accounts on an online marketplace — one as a seller, another as a buyer. He’ll stock the seller account with goods acquired by other fraudulent schemes using stolen payment details. He’ll then use the buyer account to “purchase” said items in a form of money laundering.

He also has the technical acumen to pull off scams of much greater complexity, which can make him difficult to catch. He tends to be highly confident, leading him to be a repeat offender.

To discern the Sweet-talking Fraudster, think of the Omnichannel Fraudster but with a personal twist. Instead of deploying an arsenal of high-tech tricks, this guy meets his victims in person, forms a pseudo relationship and then leverages charm and personality to wrest control of their personal information — data that can later be used to access account numbers, passwords and the like. He can be very persuasive and highly persistent, often taking weeks or months to gain his victims’ trust and avoid suspicion.

The Sweet-talking Fraudster strives to get the biggest bang for his buck, using his skills to steal fine jewelry, high-end clothing and expensive accessories.

The influence wielded by the Super Fraudster can be compared to a tumbler of water after a few drops of ink are added. The volume of the ink drops is negligible — but it doesn’t take long for its tint to affect the entire glass.
Highly skilled in all things technological, the Super Fraudster will take his expertise and monetize it by writing and selling how-to guides to online fraud, often via an anonymous network. By doing so, he enables his less sophisticated peers to pull off scams that may be beyond their own skill level. He’ll also deploy online bots, malware, phishing attacks and a bevy of other gimmicks to distance himself personally from his nefarious activity.

Ranking at the top of the fraudster totem pole, the Super Fraudster is the most professional and elusive. But catching him might just bring down a network of his less practiced peers, making the payoff especially beneficial.
Forter’s research and that of its professional peers has no doubt struck fear in the hearts of many a fraudster. Recent work in the ever-changing field of loss prevention has certainly made catching (or at least thwarting) the thief a more productive endeavor.

But even the experts know that all the research in the world still represents an aim at a moving target. Will this cycle ever hit a natural point of termination? Will the fraudsters’ technological finesse ever “hit the wall” beyond which it can progress no further? At this point, only time will tell.

Detroit-based Paul Vachon writes for various trade publications, in addition to feature stories for consumer magazines and books on Michigan history and travel.


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