The boom in cyber crime is forcing criminals to go to great lengths to recruit skilled hackers, says a report.
Organised crime gangs are targeting students
Some criminal gangs are paying students while they study to ensure they have a pool of tech-savvy workers to call on, says the report from McAfee.
Others are cashing in on the glamour of the hi-tech world to tempt youngsters into embarking on a life of crime.
McAfee said children as young as 14 years old were being targeted by some criminal gangs.
Greg Day, security analyst at McAfee and one of the authors of the Virtual Criminology report, said it aimed to explore the digital underground and how and where the criminal and hi-tech worlds meet.
"We wanted to understand a bit more about the motivation and how people end up on this career path," said Mr Day.
The most successful cyber crime gangs were based on partnerships between those with the criminals skills and contacts and those with the technical ability, said Mr Day.
"Traditional criminals have the ability to move funds and use all of the background they have," he said, "but they don't have the technical expertise."
As the number of criminal gangs looking to move into cyber crime expanded, it got harder to recruit skilled hackers, said Mr Day. This has led criminals to target university students all around the world.
"Some students are being sponsored through their IT degree," said Mr Day. Once qualified, the graduates go to work for the criminal gangs.
As well as the direct route of targeting students, some organised crime gangs were trading on the glamour surrounding the "hacker" label to help them recruit impressionable youngsters, revealed the report.
The aura of rebellion the name conjured up helped criminals ensnare children as young as 14, suggested the study.
Many cyber criminals use hijacked home PCs to launch attacks
By trawling websites, bulletin boards and chat rooms that offer hacking tools, cracks or passwords for pirated software, criminal recruiters gather information about potential targets.
Once identified, young hackers are drawn in by being rewarded for carrying out low-level tasks such as using a network of hijacked home computers, a botnet, to send out spam.
The low risk of being caught and the relatively high-rewards on offer helped the criminal gangs to paint an attractive picture of a cyber criminal's life, said Mr Day.
As youngsters are drawn in the stakes are raised and they are told to undertake increasingly risky jobs.
"It's a lot easier for people to get into a level of doing serious damage and not being entirely aware of what they are doing," said Mr Day.
Sometimes those hooked in this way end up being blackmailed into doing even more work because the criminal running them has good evidence of what that young hacker has been up to.
Other criminal gangs are looking to recruit people inside companies they want to target so they can get detailed knowledge about an organisation's procedures.
"Cybercrime is no longer in its infancy, it is big business," said Mr Day.