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Legends, Sock-puppets and Synths

If you cast your mind back a few weeks to the beginning of these posts, you will recall that I’m doing this at the behest of a Police Officer with whom I came across in my capacity as a fraudster. Whilst we are clearly poles apart in relation to most things, this appears to be one area where our respective worlds collide.

I’m sure many of you have read the stories of undercover cops masquerading as a member of a group of protesters, who then went on to have relationships with those they met during the course of their investigation. I’m clearly not in a position to moralise to them or those senior officers who decided that this was a reasonable course of action, however, what is interesting is the ‘back-story’ created by the police to make them more credible in the eyes of those they infiltrate.

I'm advised that in police parlance, this back-story is termed a ‘legend’ and, depending on the nature of the deployment, can be anything from a name and address, right through to a completely new identity, replete with photographs, documentation and supporting ‘actors’. Clearly my ‘friend’ has not told me anything that would risk endangering the life of one of his colleagues, but it seems obvious that the greater the threat/more serious the crime, the more effort is put into creating, and maintaining the legend. I dare say that (in another life!) if I was an undercover cop sent into a life and death situation, I would like to think that my legend would withstand scrutiny and not be reliant upon the efforts of an enthusiastic amateur with a penchant for desktop publishing.

Sock-puppets on the other hand, are not actual manifestations of people, rather they are online identities, used to deceive or to manipulate others. These can range from attempting to subtly influence voters e.g. by writing blogs, or in a much more personal way, by posing as like-minded souls on social media and infiltrating groups of friends and/or colleagues. This may be done to delve deep into someone’s private life to uncover anything that would make them ‘unsuitable’ to take on a particular role; think about the risks of a multi million pound international company employing a CEO with a liking for cocaine and children, or alternatively, the government appointing a new Secretary of State who prefers to dress up as a Nazi drag queen on a Saturday night NB Note for lawyers; at the time of writing I am not aware of any MPs who dress up as drag queens!

Of course the government and established businesses avoid doing these checks themselves as that would not read well in the ‘red tops’. Instead, they subcontract this task to one of the raft of businesses, often run by people who, in a previous life, enjoyed a very close view of the Thames. They can provide them not only with some comfort in their decision-making, but also a big slice of plausible deniability should this tasking ever be revealed.

Do not underestimate the planning that goes into creating these false identities; this is a long-game. Think of anything that requires you to log-on to post anything, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram etc. and even sites such as eBay and Gumtree. I’m reliably advised that these identities are created on an industrial scale and, via introduction to 'Adam' through a chap I ‘worked with’ years ago, he described the process in some detail. I’m sure I haven’t been given the full story, however, for what it’s worth, it appears to work something like this;

Adam manages a team of remote workers who each have a defined area of responsibility. They all work from home and have never met anyone else on the team other than Adam himself. Employees don’t hold their breath waiting for an invitation to the team Christmas party and Adam pays them in cash.

He has 2 workers who do nothing but create free email accounts as the ‘hub’ of their activities to which all ‘verification’ checks are sent. In truth this process is about as useful as verifying the existence of unicorns. Once they have a batch of 50 false email accounts, they send them to Adam who forwards them to a team of 4 who, for each email account create accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin.

Another team of 4 remote workers are responsible for building the back-story. Now they have a ‘cell’ of 50 false identities, this team begin following each other on social media, and posting and ‘liking’ articles on Linkedin. He gives each cell a name, and for whatever reason Adam prefers to name each cell after flowers!

The creation of synthetic identities takes time, and time in many people’s eyes, this equates to provenance. His team concentrate on each individual cell of 50 identities for a full day, then leave it alone for a while before generating any other online activity. This replicates realistic usage of genuine users of these sites and creates credible evidence in the eyes of anyone who takes more than a passing interest or runs an algorithm designed to identify rogue identities. Once these cells have a back-story of 12 months or more, they are considered to be a saleable commodity. The more activity on the account, the greater value attached to it. This is what Adam refers to as his ‘basic synth’ identity.

After being approached by a number of ‘organisations’ both in the UK and from abroad, he realised there was an opportunity to produce a ‘premium’ product. This builds upon the ‘basic synth’ offering and adds another level of detail. This includes creating groups on social media sites and providing controversial content to discussion groups. Some of Adam’s clients specifically ask that a target’s proclivities be explored and temptation be put in their way to test their reaction to a given situation. Think about the usual areas of temptation here, money, sex and power. Clearly the client does not want to be thought of as an ‘agent provocateur’ (even though they may suspect that their male client might wear that particular brand of underwear at the weekend) so by using a trusted third party such as Adam, together with a very vaguely worded brief, they escape any form of sanction if it all goes wrong.

Adam’s business is thriving. He pulled up a spreadsheet on his Mac with at least 100 rows, each representing a cell, with names including Rose,Poppy, Iris etc. If each cell contains 50 synthetic identities that is at least 5000 ready to be sold on, and he had several tabs open. You do the math(s) as they say.

For those of you who imagine him to be in his mid 40’s, portly and a bit of a bore, think again. Adam is 24, he lives in a house worth £1m+ and drives an electric Jaguar 4x4. He is a vegan, exercises every day and left university with a very average degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. His employees are students, young mothers and others who are willing to turn a blind-eye to the ethics of what they might be involved in exchange for the benefits of working from home, flexible hours and earning reasonable money without paying tax. Sure, they miss our on the office politics and the need to be politically correct but funnily enough, an invitation to the company Christmas party is not high on their list of priorities.


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