NEW YORK – The hackers behind the recent Target data breach are likely a world away and nearly impossible to find.
Thats the consensus among outside cybercrime experts as Target, the Secret Service and the FBI continue their investigation of the pre-Christmas data heist in which hackers stole about 40 million debit and credit card numbers and also took personal information – including email addresses, phone numbers, names and home addresses – for another 70 million customers.
In the aftermath of the breach, millions of Americans have been left to wonder what has become of their precious personal information.
The information can be used in a variety of nefarious ways. Criminals can attempt to use the credit card numbers and place charges on the original owners accounts, or they can use other pieces of personal information to steal peoples identities and apply for new lines of credit.
In cases where such a massive amount of information is stolen, criminals generally divide the data into chunks and sell the parcels through online black markets, says Chester Wisniewski, senior security adviser for the computer security firm Sophos.
In many ways, those markets behave much like any legitimate marketplace ruled by the forces of supply and demand. Groups of higher-end cards are worth significantly more than those with lower credit limits, and so are cards tied to additional personal information, such as names, addresses and ZIP codes, which make them easier to use.
After thieves buy the numbers, they can encode the data onto new, blank cards with an inexpensive, easy-to-use gadget. Or they can skip the card-writing process and simply use the card numbers online.
Crooks often have the option to buy cards last used in their area. That way, Wisniewski says, the cards attract less attention from the banks that issued them.
That could explain why some debit and credit card numbers of Target customers from South Texas turned up in the arrest of a pair of Mexican citizens at the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this week.
According to police in McAllen, Texas, the pair used account information stolen during the Target breach to buy tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise at national retailers in the area.
But the U.S. Secret Service said Tuesday that its investigation into the possibility of a link between the Target data theft and the arrests remains ongoing.
The underground markets where hackers sell the bundles of stolen numbers always have a steady supply of card numbers for sale, and their locations are always moving as they try to elude law enforcement, says Daniel Ingevaldson, chief technology officer at Easy Solutions Inc., a firm that sells anti-fraud products and tracks the activity of the online black markets.