A Longitudinal Measurement Study of 4chan’s Politically Incorrect Forum and its Effect on the Web

The discussion board site 4chan has been a part of the Internet’s dark underbelly since its creation, in 2003, by ‘moot’ (Christopher Poole). But recent events have brought it under the spotlight, making it a central figure in the outlandish 2016 US election campaign, with its links to the “alt-right” movement and its rhetoric of hate and racism. However, although 4chan is increasingly “covered” by the mainstream media, we know little about how it actually operates and how instrumental it is in spreading hate on other social platforms. A new study, with colleagues at UCL, Telefonica, and University of Rome now sheds light on 4chan and in particular, on /pol/, the “politically incorrect” board.

What is 4chan anyway?

4chan is an imageboard site, built around a typical bulletin-board model. An “original poster” creates a new thread by making a post, with one single image attached, to a board with a particular focus of interest. Other users can reply, with or without images. Some of 4chan’s most important aspects are anonymity (there is no identity associated with posts) and ephemerality (inactive threads are routinely deleted).

4chan currently features 69 boards, split into 7 high level categories, e.g. Japanese Culture or Adult. In our study, we focused on the /pol/ board, whose declared intended purpose is “discussion of news, world events, political issues, and other related topics”. Arguably, there are two main characteristics of /pol/ threads. One is its racist connotation, with the not-so-unusual aggressive tone, offensive and derogatory language, and links to the “alt-right” movement—a segment of right-wing ideologies supporting Donald Trump and rejecting mainstream conservatism as well as immigration, multiculturalism, and political correctness. The other characteristic is the fact that it generates a substantial amount of original content and “online” culture, ranging from  the “lolcats” memes to “pepe the frog.”

This figure below shows four examples of typical /pol/ threads:

/pol/ example threads
Examples of typical /pol/ threads. Thread (A) illustrates the derogatory use of “cuck” in response to a Bernie Sanders image, (B) a casual call for genocide with an image of a woman’s cleavage and a “humorous” response, (C) /pol/’s fears that a withdrawal of Hillary Clinton would guarantee Donald Trump’s loss, and (D) shows Kek the “god” of memes via which /pol/ believes influences reality.

Raids towards other services

Another aspect of /pol/ is its reputation for coordinating and organizing so-called “raids” on other social media platforms. Raids are somewhat similar to Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, except that rather than aiming to interrupt the service at a network level, they attempt to disrupt the community by actively harassing users and/or taking over the conversation.

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An Analysis of Reshipping Mule Scams

Credit cards are a popular target for cybercriminals. Miscreants infect victim computers with malware that reports back to their command and control servers any credit card information that the user inserts in her computer, or compromise large retail stores stealing their customers’ credit card information. After obtaining credit card details from their victims, cybercriminals face the problem of monetising such information. As we recently covered on this blog, cybercriminals monetise stolen credit cards by cloning them and using very clever tricks to bypass the Chip and PIN verification mechanisms. This way they are able to use the counterfeit credit card in a physical store, purchase expensive items such as cigarettes, and re-sell them for a profit.

Another possible way for cybercriminals to monetise stolen credit cards is by purchasing goods on online stores. To this end, they need more information than the one contained on the credit card alone: for those of you who are familiar with online shopping, some merchants require a billing address as well to allow the purchase (which is called “card not present transaction”). This additional information is often available to the criminal – it might, for example, have been retrieved together with the credit card credentials as part of a data breach against an online retailer. When purchasing goods online, cybercriminals face the issue of shipping: if they shipped the stolen goods to their home address, this would make it easy for law enforcement to find and arrest them. For this reason, miscreants need intermediaries in the shipping process.

In our recent paper, which was presented at the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS), we analyse a criminal scheme designed to help miscreants who wish to monetise stolen credit cards as we described: A cybercriminal (called operator) recruits unsuspecting citizens with the promise of a rewarding work-from-home job. This job involves receiving packages at home and having to re-ship them to a different address, provided by the operator. By accepting the job, people unknowingly become part of a criminal operation: the packages that they receive at their home contain stolen goods, and the shipping destinations are often overseas, typically in Russia. These shipping agents are commonly known as reshipping mules (or drops for stuff in the underground community). The operator then rents shipping mules as a service to cybercriminals wanting to ship stolen goods abroad. The cybercriminals taking advantage of such services are known as stuffers in the underground community. As a price for the service, the stuffer will pay a commission to the operator for each package reshipped through the service.


In collaboration with the FBI and the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) we conducted a study on such reshipping scam sites. This study involved data coming from seven different reshipping sites, and provides the research community with invaluable insights on how these operations are run. We observed that the vast majority of the re-shipped packages end up in the Moscow, Russia area, and that the goods purchased with stolen credit cards span multiple categories, from expensive electronics such as Apple products, to designer clothes, to DSLR cameras and even weapon accessories. Given the amount of goods shipped by the reshipping mule sites that we analysed, the annual revenue generated from such operations can span between 1.8 and 7.3 million US dollars. The overall losses are much higher though: the online merchant loses an expensive item from its inventory and typically has to refund the owner of the stolen credit card. In addition, the rogue goods typically travel labeled as “second hand goods” and therefore custom taxes are also evaded. Once the items purchased with stolen credit cards reach their destination they will be sold on the black market by cybercriminals.

Studying the management of the mules lead us to some surprising findings. When applying for the job, people are usually required to send the operator copies of their ID cards and passport. After they are hired, mules are promised to be paid at the end of their first month of employment. However, from our data it is clear that mules are usually never paid. After their first month expires, they are never contacted back by the operator, who just moves on and hires new mules. In other words, the mules become victims of this scam themselves, by never seeing a penny. Moreover, because they sent copies of their documents to the criminals, mules can potentially become victims of identity theft.

Our study is the first one shedding some light on these monetisation schemes linked to credit card fraud. We believe the insights in this paper can provide law enforcement and researchers with a better understanding of the cybercriminal ecosystem and allow them to develop more effective mitigation techniques against these problems.

Understanding Online Dating Scams

Our research on online dating scams will be presented at the  Conference on Detection of Intrusions and Malware and Vulnerability Assessment (DIMVA) that will be held in Milan in July. This work was a collaboration with colleagues working for Jiayuan, the largest online dating site in China, and is the first large-scale measurement of online dating scams, comprising a dataset of more than 500k accounts used by scammers on Jiayuan across 2012 and 2013.

As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time researching ways to mitigate malicious activity on online services, online dating scams picked my interest for a number of reasons. First, online dating sites operate following completely different dynamics compared to traditional online social networks. On a regular social network (say Facebook or Linkedin) users connect with people they know in real life, and any request to connect from an unknown person is considered unsolicited and potentially malicious. Many malicious content detection systems (including my own) leverage this observation to detect malicious accounts. Putting people who don’t know each other in contact, however, is the main purpose of online dating sites – for this reason, traditional methods to detect fake and malevolent accounts cannot be applied to this context, and the development of a new threat model is required. As a second differentiator, online dating users tend to use the site only for the first contact, and move to other media (text messages, instant messaging) after that. Although that is fine for regular use, it makes it more difficult to track scammers, because the online dating site loses visibility of the messages exchanged between users after they have left the site. Third, online dating scams have a strong human component, which differentiates them heavily from traditional malicious activity on online services such as spam, phishing, or malware.

We identified three types of scams happening on Jiayuan. The first one involves advertising of  escort services or illicit goods, and is very similar to traditional spam. The other two are far more interesting and specific to the online dating landscape. One type of scammers are what we call swindlers. For this scheme, the scammer starts a long-distance relationship with an emotionally vulnerable victim, and eventually asks her for money, for example to purchase the flight ticket to visit her. Needless to say, after the money has been transferred the scammer disappears. Another interesting type of scams that we identified are what we call dates for profit. In this scheme, attractive young ladies are hired by the owners of fancy restaurants. The scam then consists in having the ladies contact people on the dating site, taking them on a date at the restaurant, having the victim pay for the meal, and never arranging a second date. This scam is particularly interesting, because there are good chances that the victim will never realize that he’s been scammed – in fact, he probably had a good time.

In the paper we analyze the accounts that we detected belonging to the different scam types, and extract typical information about the demographics that scammers pose as in their accounts, as well as the demographics of their victims. For example, we show that swindlers usually pose as widowed mid-aged men and target widowed women. We then analyze the modus operandi of scam accounts, showing that specific types of scam accounts have a higher chance of getting the attention of their victims and receiving replies than regular users. Finally, we show that the activity performed on the site by scammers is mostly manual, and that the use of infected computers and botnet to spread content – which is prominent on other online services – is minimal.

We believe that the observations provided in this paper will shed some light on a so far understudied problem in the field of computer security, and will help researchers in developing systems that can automatically detect such scam accounts and block them before they have a chance to reach their victims.

The full paper is available on my website.

Update (2015-05-15): There is press coverage of this paper in Schneier on Security and BuzzFeed.