From gun trafficking social media accounts to AI deepfakes – crime is going high-tech

  • Arms traffickers are using Snapchat to sell illegal weapons
  • Instagram is being used to sell slaves
  • Criminals are using video game microtransactions to launder money
  • AI deepfakes offer a new way for thieves to steal money
  • Technology at the service of criminals

It can be argued that technology has improved our lives in many different ways, bringing an unparallelled degree of comfort and convenience. However, it’s also had an unforeseen consequence in that it presents criminals with new attack vectors through which to conduct their nefarious activities. Constantly on the lookout for new ways to become more efficient at what they do, criminals have always been among the early adopters of emerging technologies, and the internet is no exception.

 An infographic showing the predicted global cybercrime damages by 2021.
A recent report published by Cybersecurity Ventures estimates that global cybercrime damages will reach $6 trillion annually by 2021.

As the world became increasingly connected over the years, it’s also grown more vulnerable to cyber-attacks, and bad actors have been quick to take advantage of this. According to a recent report published by Cybersecurity Ventures, global cybercrime damages are predicted to reach $6 trillion per year by 2021.

Arms traffickers are using Snapchat to sell illegal weapons

The internet has always been a useful tool for arms traffickers to connect with prospective customers. The recent rise of social media has made that even easier, with arms traffickers increasingly turning to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to market their illegal goods. In January 2018, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) discovered a trafficking ring led by a 22-year-old Nevada resident, Anthony Reed. Along with two of his associates, Reed purchased hundreds of semi-automatic pistols through private-party transactions in Nevada and smuggled them into California. He then used Snapchat to advertise the weapons by posting photos and videos of himself holding the guns to his own account. Reed was eventually approached by an undercover ATF agent, who proceeded to buy 35 handguns for more than $30,000 over the course of 11 months, including multiple Glock 9mm and .40 caliber pistols, as well as several assault pistols. According to prosecutors and ATF agents, Reed’s trafficking ring managed to sell more than 100 firearms in the Bay Area before they were finally arrested. Guns were even sold to people with felony conviction records, and some of them were used to commit a number of crimes, including armed robberies, assaults, and murders.

Reed wasn’t the only one to adopt this approach, with several recent law enforcement investigations showing that social media is starting to play an increasingly prominent role in the sale of illegal guns, especially in California, a state known for its strict gun laws. “California has been surrounded on most sides by states with much, much weaker gun safety laws,” says Ari Freilich, a staff attorney with the Giffords Law Center. “Predictably, those states have become magnets for gun traffickers funneling guns into California, especially when traffickers can easily acquire bulk quantities of firearms, including assault weapons, without a background check or sale record in Arizona and Nevada today.” Traffickers often use a scheme called straw purchasing, in which someone with a clean criminal record buys guns legally in one of the neighbouring states, which are then transported illegally into California. Many of them are then sold through social media.

Besides Snapchat, traffickers have also used Facebook and Instagram to conduct business. According to unsealed court records from a recent Bay Area case, ATF used a confidential informant to buy 34 guns from an Oakland resident named Daniel James. The deals were orchestrated through Instagram and involved a number of weapons that are illegal in California, such as AR-15 rifles, AR-style pistols, fully-automatic handguns, and high-capacity magazines. “Persons involved in gun and drug trafficking communicate with their associates, suppliers and customers using cellphones, smartphone apps, and online messaging functions through websites like Facebook and Instagram,” writes ATF agent Whitney Hameth in a search warrant application. “They uses [sic] these methods to arrange the sales of guns and drugs, set quantities and prices, meeting places.”

Instagram is being used to sell slaves

Social media platforms aren’t only used to sell illegal guns. A recent undercover investigation by BBC News Arabic exposed a thriving slave market in which domestic workers were being sold online through Instagram and other popular apps for as little as a few thousand dollars. The posts advertised the sale of unlucky women and were accompanied with hashtags ‘maids for transfers’ or ‘maids for sale’, while deals were arranged via private messages. A team of BBC investigators posing as newcomers to Kuwait were able to contact and meet a number of people who were trying to sell their domestic workers online. One of the sellers turned out to be a Kuwaiti policeman. Another tried to sell them a 16-year-old girl from Guinea, even though domestic workers need to be at least 21 years of age according to Kuwait’s laws.

“This is the quintessential example of modern slavery,” says Urmila Bhoola, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery. “Here we see a child being sold and traded like chattel, like a piece of property.” Around 90 per cent of homes in Kuwait have domestic workers, who usually come from some of the world’s poorest countries in an attempt to earn enough money to support their family back home. Under the Kafala system, a family can bring a worker into the country through an agency and become their official sponsor. These workers aren’t allowed to switch jobs or leave the country without their sponsor’s permission. However, once they arrive in Kuwait, they’re often deprived of basic human rights, confined to the house, and have their passports and phones taken away from them. Once they get bored of them, sponsors will often try to sell them to the highest bidder.

After the story broke through, Kuwaiti authorities officially summoned some of the people who tried to sell their domestic workers online. While they were ordered to take down their ads and sign a legal agreement promising not to participate in this activity any longer, no legal action has been taken against them. Instagram has since banned the hashtags and removed the objectionable content, while Google and Apple have promised to do more to prevent apps that facilitate such despicable practice from reaching their app stores. However, some critics believe that’s not enough. “What they are doing is promoting an online slave market,” says Bhoola. “If Google, Apple, Facebook or any other companies are hosting apps like these, they have to be held accountable.”

Criminals are using video game microtransactions to launder money

Video games haven’t escaped the grasp of criminals, either. The American video game developer Valve, which also runs the biggest PC software distribution platform Steam, recently published a statement that informed Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) players they would no longer be able to trade container keys between accounts. Previously, anyone playing the popular first-person shooter could use Steam’s internal marketplace to sell or trade container keys that open in-game cases containing various weapons and cosmetic upgrades. However, Valve reportedly discovered that criminals were exploiting this feature to launder money.

“In the past, most key trades we observed were between legitimate customers,” reads the statement. “However, worldwide fraud networks have recently shifted to using CS:GO keys to liquidate their gains. At this point, nearly all key purchases that end up being traded or sold on the marketplace are believed to be fraud-sourced. As a result we have decided that newly purchased keys will not be tradable or marketable.” That means that players will still be able to buy the keys, but they will be restricted to the purchasing account from now on. This isn’t the first time Steam’s marketplace has been associated with fraud, though. In 2017, two popular YouTubers were forced to settle with the Federal Trade Commission when it was discovered they were responsible for a website that allowed players to gamble with their valuable CS:GO skins.

AI deepfakes offer a new way for thieves to steal money

Artificial intelligence is another emerging technology that has become a powerful new weapon in criminals’ arsenal. Using an AI-based software to impersonate a chief executive, fraudsters were recently able to convince a UK energy company’s energy CEO he was speaking to his actual boss and trick him into transferring $221,000 to a Hungarian supplier. However, when the fraudsters called him again to try to get him to make a second transfer, the energy CEO became suspicious. He decided to call the boss himself and soon realised he was the victim of a theft. The transferred money was later moved through several accounts in Hungary and Mexico and was never recovered.

“The software was able to imitate the voice, and not only the voice: the tonality, the punctuation, the German accent,” explains a spokesperson for the energy company’s insurance firm, Euler Hermes Group SA. The subsequent police investigation concluded that the criminals used a commercial voice-generating software to commit the fraud, but failed to uncover any plausible suspects. According to the cybersecurity firm Symantec, this wasn’t the first case of deepfake voice fraud, having registered at least three similar incidents in which companies were tricked into sending money to a fraudulent account. While Symantec hasn’t disclosed the names of the companies affected, they claim that one of these cases resulted in millions of dollars in losses.

Technology at the service of criminals

Our world has become increasingly connected in recent years. While this has brought high levels of comfort and convenience into our lives, our growing reliance on digital technologies has also made us more susceptible to cyber-attacks. Recognised as early adopters of innovative technologies, criminals were quick to take advantage of this opportunity and appropriate some of these technologies for nefarious purposes. From using social media platforms to sell illegal guns and slaves to laundering money through video game microtransactions to using AI deepfakes to trick companies into transferring money to fraudulent accounts, technology has taken on an increasingly prominent role in illegal activities, making criminals more dangerous and elusive than ever before.

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