Inside the dark net: Why metro Atlanta is a hub for cyber crooks

Criminals wracking in millions on dark web during the pademic

ATLANTA — Cyber-criminals are making billions, scamming unemployment and small business benefits designed to help struggling Americans during the pandemic.

“Many times what we see on some of those secret communication channels are personal identifiers of individuals with real people, or real businesses that are being offered for sale,” explained David Maimon, Georgia State professor and director of the university’s Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group.

Maimon’s team goes undercover on the dark web to learn about criminals, their supply chain, and how to disrupt it. He showed Channel 2′s Dave Huddleston how brazen criminals are on the dark web. They post videos bragging about how much money they make off schemes and show off fake credit cards and passports. When COVID-19 spread to the U.S., criminals quickly started selling tips on how to con pandemic relief efforts, according to Maimon.

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“More and more people offering SBA loan fraud methods for sale, people started talking about unemployment benefit frauds being offered for sale,” Maimon said.

Jo Chaney fears her daughter Paige’s unemployment information was sold online.

“She had been getting her unemployment payment, but all of a sudden, I want to say was the last week of July she didn’t get it anymore,” Chaney said.

She said criminals changed Paige’s account password right before their eyes.

“Somebody had taken over her account somebody else was getting the money, the funds,” Chaney said.

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Federal investigators said criminals are stealing billions from the government and Americans.

“It’s the modern-day bank robbery,” Todd Renner, FBI supervisory special agent said. He investigates cybercrimes here in metro Atlanta. “Our squad alone has stopped about 15 million in SBA fraud in the past few months.”

He said crooks, especially here in Atlanta, are stealing federal loans and using that money for expensive merchandise, including Rolexes and luxury cars.

Renner also explained that metro Atlanta is a hub for cybercrime. Because of its concentration of financial centers, it is a hot spot for muling. That’s when crooks pay or con Georgians into withdrawing stolen funds out of a bank account. He said mules may be victims of romance or job scams online and may not know they’re helping criminals until it’s too late.

Restaurant owners like Chris Foster say that money is a lifeline for struggling small businesses.

“We’ve stayed open during the entire duration of COVID and we’ve just done everything possible to keep both stores open,” Foster, owner of Your Pie restaurants, said.

Foster said his revenue dropped 50% during the pandemic. “

We had to get creative in terms of what we offer: patio investments, protective gear, making sure that we got the source sanitized 24/7,” Foster said.

Those adjustments are expensive, according to Foster. When more small business COVID relief funds became available last month, he was eager to apply before scammers get a chance to game the system.

“It’s sad to see people take advantage edit using taxpayers’ money to buy things for their own personal good,” Foster said.

Chaney called the state labor department, police, and Channel 2 before she got Paige’s money back. She said she knows she’s not alone.

“When we were in the police department filing the report, oddly enough, there were two people in front of us doing the same thing,” Chaney said.

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