Page last updated at 10:26 GMT, Monday, 27 October 2008

Alarm raised on teenage hackers

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

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Chris Boyd on how to track a teenage hacker

Increasing numbers of teenagers are starting to dabble in hi-tech crime, say experts.

Computer security professionals say many net forums are populated by teenagers swapping credit card numbers, phishing kits and hacking tips.

The poor technical skills of many young hackers means they are very likely to get caught and arrested, they say.

Youth workers added that any teenager getting a criminal record would be putting their future at risk.

Slippery slope

"I see kids of 11 and 12 sharing credit card details and asking for hacks," said Chris Boyd, director of malware research at FaceTime Security.

Many teenagers got into low level crime by looking for exploits and cracks for their favourite computer games.

Communities and forums spring up where people start to swap malicious programs, knowledge and sometimes stolen data.

For a kid, getting a criminal record is the worst possible move
Graham Robb, Youth Justice Board

Some also look for exploits and virus code that can be run against the social networking sites popular with many young people. Some then try to peddle or use the details or accounts they net in this way.

Mr Boyd said he spent a lot of time tracking down the creators of many of the nuisance programs written to exploit users of social networking sites and the culprit was often a teenager.

From such virus and nuisance programs, he said, many progress to outright criminal practices such as using phishing kits to create and run their own scams.

"Some are quite crude, some are clever and some are stupid," he said.

The teenagers' attempts to make money from their life of cyber crime usually came unstuck because of their poor technical skills.

"They do not even know enough to get a simple phishing or attack tool right," said Kevin Hogan, a senior manager Symantec Security Response.

"We have seen phishing sites that have broken images because the link, rather than reference the original webpage, is referencing a file on the C: drive that is not there," he said.

Symantec researchers have collected many examples of teenagers who have managed to cripple their own PCs by infecting them with viruses they have written.

Video choice

Chris Boyd from FaceTime said many of the young criminal hackers were undermined by their desire to win recognition for their exploits.

YouTube hompage, BBC
Many teenage hackers publicise their exploits on YouTube

"They are obsessed with making videos of what they are doing," he said.

Many post videos of what they have done to sites such as YouTube and sign on with the same alias used to hack a site, run a phishing attack or write a web exploit.

Many share photos or other details of their life on other sites making it easy for computer security experts to track them down and get them shut down.

Mr Boyd's action to shut down one wannabe hacker, using the name YoGangsta50, was so comprehensive that it wrung a pledge from the teenager in question to never to get involved in petty hi-tech crime again.

Mathew Bevan, a reformed hacker who was arrested as a teenager and then acquitted for his online exploits, said it was no surprise that young people were indulging in online crime.

"It's about the thrill and power to prove they are somebody," he said. That also explains why they stuck with an alias or online identity even though it was compromised, he added.

"The aim of what they are doing is to get the fame within their peer group," he said. "They spend months or years developing who they are and their status. They do not want to give that up freely."

Graham Robb, a board member of the Youth Justice Board, said teenagers needed to appreciate the risks they took by falling into hi-tech crime.

"If they get a criminal record it stays with them," he said. "A Criminal Record Bureau check will throw that up and it could prevent access to jobs."

Anyone arrested and charged for the most serious crimes would carry their criminal record with them throughout their life.

Also, he added, young people needed to appreciate the impact of actions carried out via the net and a computer.

"Are they going to be able to live with the fact that they caused harm to other people?" he said. "They do not think there is someone losing their money or their savings from what they are doing.

"For a kid, getting a criminal record is the worst possible move."

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