Japan’s Cybercrime Underground: a Ticking Time Bomb?

japanese toriChina, Russia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East – the list of hacking hotspots on the radar of most threat intelligence operatives is growing all the time. But what about Japan? For such an apparently technologically advanced nation, you might be surprised to learn its cybercrime underground is still in its infancy.

That’s the key takeaway from a new Trend Micro report I covered for Infosecurity and IDG Connect recently.

The security giant claimed that Japanese cybercriminals haven’t yet built up the technical know-how to create malware themselves, preferring to buy from other countries and then share tips on how to use it on many of the local underground bulletin board forums.

These forums also sell the usual suspects of child porn, stolen card data, stolen phone numbers, weapons, and so on.

There were several interesting distinctions Trend Micro uncovered between the Japanese cybercrime underground and elsewhere:

  • Cybercriminals accept gift cards from Amazon and the like in lieu of payment
  • CAPTCHA in Japanese is used to access the forums, keeping their membership mainly to locals
  • URLs for some secret BBSs hosted on Tor and other anonymising platforms can actually be found published in books and magazines
  • Japanese cybercriminals are ultra cautious, even using code words when discussing certain contraband, like the kanji character for “cold” when referring to methamphetamine.

So far, the notorious yakuza organised crime gangs have largely stayed out of the game, and that’s the way it’ll stay for some time to come, report author Akira Urano told me. That’s because of a combination of strict cybersecurity laws and the fact that offline scams still work a treat. But it might not be that way forever.

“If ever organized crime groups like the yakuza ever venture into darknets, all they would need is the aid of tech-savvy individuals to engage in criminal transactions,” Urano argues in the report.

I was curious to hear a second opinion on Japanese cybercrime, so I asked FireEye’s local experts.

They hit me with a few stats from the National Police Agency (NPA) which show that, infancy or not, there’s a pretty healthy cybercrime industry in Japan.

Some 88 people were arrested for cybercrimes in the first half of the year, 58% of whom were Japanese. The country is also a major victim of banking fraud – second only to the US, according to other stats.

The country’s public and private sectors also have to withstand a barrage of likely state-backed cyber attacks, launched from outside the country.

Japan’s strengths in advanced technology and engineering, as well as its hand in territorial disputes, have made it a target for China.

Aerospace and defence, transportation, high-tech, construction and telecoms are some of the highest risk industries.

FireEye told me the following by email.

“FireEye observes similar tactics and techniques on Japanese networks as we see elsewhere in the world. However, the key difference is localization: APT actors tailor their phishing e-mails, CnC infrastructure, and even their exploits to Japanese end users. For instance, we have observed threat activity against Japanese targets exploit the Japanese Ichitaro word processing system; zero days against the program are not uncommon.”

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