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Hack for Hire: Exploring the Emerging Market for Account Hijacking

Ariana Mirian
Joe DeBlasio
Stefan Savage
Geoffrey M. Voelker


Email accounts represent an enticing target for attackers, both for the information they contain and the root of trust they provide to other connected web services. While defense-in-depth approaches such as phishing detection, risk analysis, and two-factor authentication help to stem large-scale hijackings, targeted attacks remain a potent threat due to the customization and effort involved. In this paper, we study a segment of targeted attackers known as ``hack for hire'' services to understand the playbook that attackers use to gain access to victim accounts. Posing as buyers, we interacted with 27 English, Russian, and Chinese blackmarket services, only five of which succeeded in attacking synthetic (though realistic) identities we controlled. Attackers primarily relied on tailored phishing messages, with enough sophistication to bypass SMS two-factor authentication. However, despite the ability to successfully deliver account access, the market exhibited low volume, poor customer service, and had multiple scammers. As such, we surmise that retail email hijacking has yet to mature to the level of other criminal market segments.