Three years undercover with the identity thieves

Keith Mularski talks about his role as administrator of online fraud site DarkMarket.

Salesmen and parents know the technique well. It's called the takeaway, and as far as Keith Mularski is concerned, it's the reason he kept his job as administrator of online fraud site DarkMarket.

DarkMarket was what's known as a "carder" site. Like an eBay for criminals, it was where identity thieves could buy and sell stolen credit card numbers, online identities and the tools to make fake credit cards. In late 2006, Mularski, who had risen through the ranks using the name Master Splynter, had just been made administrator of the site. Mularski not only had control over the technical data available there, but he had the power to make or break up-and-coming identity thieves by granting them access to the site. And not everybody was happy with the arrangement.

A hacker named Iceman -- authorities say he was actually San Francisco resident Max Butler -- who ran a competing Web site, was saying that Mularski wasn't the Polish spammer he claimed to be. According to Iceman, Master Splynter was really an agent for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Iceman had some evidence to back up his claim but couldn't prove anything conclusively. At the time, every other administrator on the site was being accused of being a federal agent, and Iceman had credibility problems of his own. He had just hacked DarkMarket and three other carder forums in an aggressive play at seizing control of the entire black market for stolen credit card information.

That's when Mularski went for the takeaway. Salesmen have long used this tactic to seal difficult deals: You simply take the deal off the table in the hope it will spur the customer to come to you. Badgered by questions about his credibility, he threatened to quit altogether. "I decided to risk it all and just said, 'Hey, if you think you can do a better job running the site and if you think I'm a fed, then by all means take the stuff. I don't want anything to do with it," he recalled recently in an interview. "What law enforcement agency would, after they were monitoring the site, want to give it back to the bad guys?"

Mularski's gambit paid off, and the other DarkMarket administrators let him stay on for another two years.

In the end they would regret that decision. Iceman was right: Supervisory Special Agent J. Keith Mularski had gone deeper into the world of online computer fraud than any FBI agent before. Working with police agencies in Germany, the U.K., Turkey and other countries, he spearheaded a remarkable investigation that netted 59 arrests and prevented an estimated US$70 million in bank fraud before the FBI pulled the plug on Operation DarkMarket on Oct. 4, 2008.

Mularski works for a little-known FBI division called the Cyber Initiative and Resource Fusion Unit, run out of the National Cyber-Forensics & Training Alliance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The unit is different from a typical FBI field office. It works hand in hand with industry and takes the time to do the deep research required to penetrate the world of online criminals.

"They have a direct personal relationship with industry people in all areas, but specifically a great relationship with the financial institutions," said Gary Warner, director of research in computer forensics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The group also works closely with international law enforcement, laying the groundwork to prosecute Internet criminals who launch attacks across national borders. "Those relationships allow them to take on cases that nobody else would take on," Warner said.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags cybercrimeidentity theft

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Robert McMillan

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Father’s Day Gift Guide

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?