Last updated at Fri, 17 Sep 2021 13:43:41 GMT

Cybercriminals are innovative, always finding ways to adapt to new circumstances and opportunities. The proof of this can be seen in the rise of a certain variety of activity on the dark web: the sale of access to compromised networks.

This type of dark web activity has existed for decades, but it matured and began to truly thrive amid the COVID-19 global pandemic. The worldwide shift to a remote workforce gave cybercriminals more attack surface to exploit, which fueled sales on underground criminal websites, where buyers and sellers transfer network access to compromised enterprises and organizations to turn a profit.

Having witnessed this sharp rise in breach sales in the cybercriminal ecosystem, IntSights, a Rapid7 company, decided to analyze why and how criminals sell their network access, with an eye toward understanding how to prevent these network compromise events from happening in the first place.

We have compiled our network compromise research, as well as our prevention and mitigation best practices, in the brand-new white paper “Selling Breaches: The Transfer of Enterprise Network Access on Criminal Forums.”

During the process of researching and analyzing, we came across three surprising findings we thought worth highlighting. For a deeper dive, we recommend reading the full white paper, but let’s take a quick look at these discoveries here.

1. The massive gap between average and median breach sales prices

As part of our research, we took a close look at the pricing characteristics of breach sales in the criminal-to-criminal marketplace. Unsurprisingly, pricing varied considerably from one sale to another. A number of factors can influence pricing, including everything from the level of access provided to the value of the victim as a source of criminal revenue.

That said, we found an unexpectedly significant discrepancy between the average price and the median price across the 40 sales we analyzed. The average price came out to approximately $9,640 USD, while the median price was $3,000 USD.

In part, this gap can be attributed to a few unusually high prices among the most expensive offerings. The lowest price in our dataset was $240 USD for access to a healthcare organization in Colombia, but healthcare pricing tends to trend lower than other industries, with a median price of $700 in this sample. On the other end of the spectrum, the highest price was for a telecommunications service provider that came in at about $95,000 USD worth of Bitcoin.

Because of this discrepancy, IntSights researchers view the average price of $9,640 USD as a better indicator of the higher end of the price range, while the median price is more representative of typical pricing for these sales — $3,000 USD was also the single most common price. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to discover this difference and dig into the reasons behind it.

2. The numerical dominance of tech and telecoms victims

While the sales of network access are a cross-industry phenomenon, technology and telecommunications companies are the most common victims. Not only are they frequent targets, but their compromised access also commands some of the highest prices on the market.

In our sample, tech and telecoms represented 10 of the 46 victims, or 22% of those affected by industry. Out of the 10 most expensive offerings we analyzed, four were for tech and telecommunications organizations, and there were only two that had prices under $10,000 USD. A telecommunications service provider located in an unspecified Asian country also had the single most expensive offering in this sample at approximately $95,000 USD.

After investigating the reasoning behind this numerical dominance, IntSights researchers believe that the high value and high number of tech and telecommunications companies as breach victims stem from their usefulness in enabling further attacks on other targets. For example, a cybercriminal who gains access to a mobile service provider could conduct SIM swapping attacks on digital banking customers who use two-factor authentication via SMS.

These pricing standards were surprisingly expensive compared to other industries, but for good reason: the investment may cost more upfront but prove more lucrative in the long run.

3. The low proportion of retail and hospitality victims

As previously mentioned, we broke down the sales of network access based on the industries affected, and to our surprise, only 6.5% of victims were in retail and hospitality. This seemed odd, considering the popularity of the industry as a target for cybercrime. Think of all the headlines in the news about large retail companies falling victim to a breach that exposed millions of customer credentials.

We explored the reasoning behind this low proportion of victims in the space and came to a few conclusions. For example, we theorized that the main customers for these network access sales are ransomware operators, not payment card data collectors. Payment card data collection is likely a more optimal way to monetize access to a retail or hospitality business, whereas putting ransomware on a retail and hospitality network would actually “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.”

We also found that the second-most expensive offering in this sample was for access to an organization supporting retail and hospitality businesses. The victim was a third party managing customer loyalty and rewards programs, and the seller highlighted how a buyer could monetize this indirect access to its retail and hospitality customer base. This victim may have been more valuable because, among other things, loyalty and rewards programs are softer targets with weaker security than credit cards and bank accounts; thus, they're easier to defraud.

Learn more about compromised network access sales

Curious to learn more about the how and why of cybercriminals selling compromised network access? Read our white paper, Selling Breaches: The Transfer of Enterprise Network Access on Criminal Forums, for the full story behind this research and how it can inform your security efforts.