Fighters of cybertheft spend time on the ‘dark net’


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DENVER -- In a high-rise above downtown Denver, a group of elite cybersecurity technicians are hard at work combing through an unusual and unpredictable online underworld.

“We scrape the dark net,” said Mark Turnage, CEO of OWL Cybersecurity. “We go into the dark net on a daily basis continuously.”

OWL is a threat intelligence company that has developed an automated way to collect stolen data from this mysterious area of the web.

“We believe we have the largest dark net content database in the world,” Turnage said.

When prime targets like big-box retailers, banks and insurance companies are breached, thieves post the data on the dark net only long enough for it to be sold.

But OWL swoops in, grabbing sensitive info before it vanishes.

Scraping in 49 languages, the Denver team identifies breaches from a diverse group of crooks and for a diverse group of clients. OWL’s system even allows techs to search individual credit card numbers.

Kim Church of suburban Denver is one of the many credit card theft victims.

“You’re somewhere, you have a full buggy of groceries and they tell you I’m sorry but this card is not working,” Church said.

For Church, who works for a financial institution and takes precautions, it’s a mystery as to exactly how her credit card number was lifted. She has been targeted twice this year.

“It’s irritating because you think you’re being good,” Church said. “You think you’re being savvy and you’re not.”

Victims are everywhere. No one is completely safe, according to Turnage.

Turnage said up to 40 employees at FOX31 have had their email passwords stolen over the past two years.

For a media company, that’s not unusual. Hackers typically use viruses to learn email passwords, looking for anything they can sell, including drugs and guns.

“We suspect it’s millions, if not billions of dollars,” Turnage said.

When it comes to making that money on an individual level, compromised passwords are a favorite for dark net gangs.

Experts said there are ways to protect yourself.

  • Use complex passwords
  • Do not use the same password for multiple accounts
  • Keep a close eye on your bank accounts and credit reports
  • Be smart with public wireless networks at places like coffee shops

Hackers often create fake networks under a reputable company name or use real networks to get personal user information.

The dark net is nothing new. It represents the largest area of the internet, created in part by funding from the U.S. government for State Department communication. It has since morphed into an unsavory space.

“The dark net has been largely colonized by bad guys,” Turnage said.

RELATED: Ways to protect yourself

The business of monitoring those bad guys has only existed for roughly the past three years and continues to grow.

“Nobody, not the U.S. government, not anybody, can fully define the size or scale or scope of the dark net,” Turnage said.

The undefined “wild west” of the internet keeps OWL and its competitors on their toes.

“We’re trying to stay ahead of the bad guys,” said Turnage.

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