Hackerville, the code name of the city of online scams

Hackerville, the code name of the city of online scams

What is the most abundant where you live? Cafes, bars, greengrocers, bookmakers? In the Romanian town of Râmnicu Vâlceain 2003 they had up to 24 offices of Western Union, the American company specializing in money transfers around the world. Today, a look at its official page shows us 15 results between offices and establishments attached to Western Union. Not bad for a municipality that had more than 100,000 inhabitants and that in the last census did not exceed 90,000. The fact is that this Romanian city became famous years ago for the lucrative activities of some of its inhabitants. That’s why she came to nickname her hackerville.

In 2018, a six-episode miniseries which dealt with this topic. A network of hackers who, coincidentally, lived in the same Romanian city. In fiction it was Timisoara. But this co-production between Germany and Romania spoke indirectly of Râmnicu Vâlcea. Hence the title of the series was precisely hackerville. you can see it in hbo max. Although as usual, there are differences between reality and fiction. Although the line is getting finer.

It all starts in 2005. Or at least it is for that year in which the authorities realize that something happens in romania, and more specifically in a particular municipality. Apparently there is a large amount of money that ends up there from different parts of Europe. And everything indicates that it is money that comes from extortion and online fraud. Also, everything is very well organized. The money is transported and laundered right there and they even have members of the organization in other countries who travel periodically to facilitate the transactions between victims and organization.

Brief history of mail scams

Historians point out that the spanish prisoner scam It is one of the first scams that use email as a tool to deceive others under the false pretext of helping. It dates back to the 19th century, to the Spanish War of Independence. The idea was to pose as a Spanish prisoner requesting a little help in the form of money to satisfy his need or escape capture from him. As soon as a few fell for the trap, the scammer could earn a good amount of money with little effort.

More popular is the nigerian prince scam, an evolution of this same scam that began in ordinary mail, was modernized with typed letters and survives today thanks to email. There are many variants of this scam. And it is that although few fall into the trapThe little effort is well worth it. And it has fewer risks than face-to-face scams such as the classic tocomocho or the stamp scam. From there we jump to email popularity and the facility to send dozens of messages to addresses obtained in a thousand different ways. With four or five biting, you’ve already amortized the scam. A lucrative but illegal business that exposes the offender little. Hence its success all over the world.

Today, we call these types of scams phishing and use many communication channels. Email is joined by phone calls, SMS messages, WhatsApp messages or fake pages that imitate those of your bank or companies like Facebook or Microsoft. Not to mention fraudulent online shopping pages, false sales of real estate or other high-value products, and a long list of online scams and fraud. And we haven’t even mentioned ransomware, which allows you to demand a monetary ransom in exchange for you being able to recover your files that have been encrypted by malicious software that you opened by mistake.

Revolution Square in Râmnicu Vâlcea, Romania. Source: Tiia Monto (Wikipedia) Credit: Tiia Monto / Wikipedia

The right place at the right time

An article of wired 2011 dealt in depth with a topic that had been discussed for a few years. Something was going on in Romania and even the FBI had its eyes on it. Râmnicu Vâlcea, a city that was receiving a lot of money from the United States and from different parts of Europe. money coming through Western Union and that many times it became sports cars, luxurious homes and a suspicious pace of life for a country that does not fare well when its economy is compared to that of the rest of European countries. The European average of GDP per capita is 32,322 euros. At the head, Germany, with 3.5 million euros. Romania, for its part, has a GDP per capita of 12,510 euros.

So where did all that money come from? of online fraud. And despite the fact that this Romanian population was nicknamed hackerville, most of the cybercriminals out there are not hackers. They simply practice online fraud with scams that hardly require computer skills. Or at least that’s how it was at first. Over the years they specialized and some entered the juicy business of business malware. And later, ransomware. These scams resulted in lots of money reaching Râmnicu Vâlcea and that became apartment blocks, nightclubs, luxury establishments and vehicles from brands such as Mercedes, Audi or BMW.

A good question is, why part of the population specialized in online fraud? And the answer is in the Romanian history. After World War II, Eastern Europe became part, directly or indirectly, of the USSR. In the case of Romania, in 1947 it went from being a monarchy to a popular republic allied with the USSR.

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The best known part of this communist stage is during the mandate of Nicolae Ceausescu, which since 1965 did and undid in the country at will. In 1989, Romania rises up against the dictator and ends up being tried and killed along with his wife. Since then, Romania went from being a communist economy to a free market that stood out politically for the austerity and economically due to low wages and unemployment. But at the end of the 90s an invention arrived that would change everything: the internet.

A poor country that suddenly had a means of connecting with the world. A world where abundance reigned. Young people of the time found on the internet a place to find a solution to their economic problems. Thanks to cyber cafes, you could connect to the internet for a cheap price for hours. And while many of us played online quake-sandto the UnrealTournament or to Counter Strikein Râmnicu Vâlceasome made their first steps in the world of cybercrime.

From social engineering to criminal hacking

Necessity sharpens the senses. But that doesn’t make you a computer whiz overnight. Although online fraud practices have been evolving and introducing more and more technological components and hacking skills, many started in hackerville and other Romanian towns with the classic fraud, which consists of offering something but then keeping the money. And the propitious victims for it were miles away and they numbered in the millions: the United States. Not that they were more reliable. It was simply a country with a large population connected to the internet. And, furthermore, these were the early years of the commercial internet, so anti-fraud measures they were rather few.

Over time, online fraud he became more professional. In the relationship between the victim and the cybercriminal, a third party appeared, also a fraudster, who pretended to be a payment gateway or a platform where you can send payments securely. The problem was still the same. You made a purchase, you paid, but the product did not arrive. And in the case of fraudulent emails, they gradually improved their quality to make them more credible.

Already well into the 21st century, the level of professionalization It included hiring native English speakers to perfect fake messages and pages, or sending members of criminal organizations to facilitate the search for victims, the collection of profits, and the sending of money to Romania. That and the introduction of hacking experts capable of, at least, preparing malware or ransomware already created to infect individuals, companies or organizations that could pay a hefty ransom. And most of them have a lot in common, their youth.

Photo by JJ Ying in unsplash

A business that continues to grow

We said that the boom by online fraud began at the end of the 20th century with the arrival of the internet. Less than a decade later, around 2005, Râmnicu Vâlcea It was already considered the city of cybercriminals, a place that was always mentioned when talking about online fraud and Eastern Europe. But what has become of hackerville since then? Is it still a thriving place for online fraud?

Everything points to yes. In the summer of 2021, the arrest of two people in Romania accused of large-scale online fraud involving victims in the Netherlands was announced. Specifically, the fraud had to do with the home sales. Reading the news of the arrest, we soon get a Râmnicu Vâlcea. Precisely, the police in this town have been used to dealing with this type of crime with some frequency for several decades now.

Another curious fact. In 2015, Romania was considered the fifth country in the world in the online fraud ranking. Fifth in the world list and first in Europe. And, in part, it is not surprising. It is one of the countries with the fastest broadband network.

How is the cybercriminal ecosystem of hackerville currently? Earlier I mentioned an article from 2011 by wiredbut in 2019 it also appeared in an extensive report of abcnews. In this report you can see how cybercrime has evolved, both in this Romanian population and throughout the world. Currently, there are various cybercriminal groups that act as companies. In the sense that they compete with each other and steal information and talent from each other. And among the victims, they are no longer limited to buyers from the United States. Now aim higher, like companies or public institutions. According to data from certificate of Romania, the institution in charge of analyzing and providing responses to cybersecurity incidents, in 2017 there were 140 million alerts from computer systems that were attacked by cybercriminals.

But not everything will be bad news. There are two currents of hacking, the white hat hacker or white hat hacker and the one with the black hat, the black hat hacker. While the second is the one that has given the profession a bad name, since he is dedicated to cybercrime, the first has a more laudable job: finding bugs and security holes and help companies and institutions combat cybercrime. And if in Romania and in hackerville cybercrime abounds, it is not surprising that they also arise companies and professionals dedicated to cybersecurity and dealing with clients from all over the world.