Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground

Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground

by Kevin Poulsen

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Former hacker Kevin Poulsen has, over the past decade, built a reputation as one of the top investigative reporters on the cybercrime beat. In Kingpin, he pours his unmatched access and expertise into book form for the first time, delivering a gripping cat-and-mouse narrative—and an unprecedented view into the twenty-first century’s signature form of organized crime.
The word spread through the hacking underground like some unstoppable new virus: Someone—some brilliant, audacious crook—had just staged a hostile takeover of an online criminal network that siphoned billions of dollars from the US economy.
The FBI rushed to launch an ambitious undercover operation aimed at tracking down this new kingpin; other agencies around the world deployed dozens of moles and double agents. Together, the cybercops lured numerous unsuspecting hackers into their clutches. . . . Yet at every turn, their main quarry displayed an uncanny ability to sniff out their snitches and see through their plots.
The culprit they sought was the most unlikely of criminals: a brilliant programmer with a hippie ethic and a supervillain’s double identity. As prominent “white-hat” hacker Max “Vision” Butler, he was a celebrity throughout the programming world, even serving as a consultant to the FBI. But as the black-hat “Iceman,” he found in the world of data theft an irresistible opportunity to test his outsized abilities. He infiltrated thousands of computers around the country, sucking down millions of credit card numbers at will. He effortlessly hacked his fellow hackers, stealing their ill-gotten gains from under their noses. Together with a smooth-talking con artist, he ran a massive real-world crime ring.
And for years, he did it all with seeming impunity, even as countless rivals ran afoul of police.
Yet as he watched the fraudsters around him squabble, their ranks riddled with infiltrators, their methods inefficient, he began to see in their dysfunction the ultimate challenge: He would stage his coup and fix what was broken, run things as they should be run—even if it meant painting a bull’s-eye on his forehead.
Through the story of this criminal’s remarkable rise, and of law enforcement’s quest to track him down, Kingpin lays bare the workings of a silent crime wave still affecting millions of Americans. In these pages, we are ushered into vast online-fraud supermarkets stocked with credit card numbers, counterfeit checks, hacked bank accounts, dead drops, and fake passports. We learn the workings of the numerous hacks—browser exploits, phishing attacks, Trojan horses, and much more—these fraudsters use to ply their trade, and trace the complex routes by which they turn stolen data into millions of dollars. And thanks to Poulsen’s remarkable access to both cops and criminals, we step inside the quiet, desperate arms race that law enforcement continues to fight with these scammers today. 
Ultimately, Kingpin is a journey into an underworld of startling scope and power, one in which ordinary American teenagers work hand in hand with murderous Russian mobsters and where a simple Wi-Fi connection can unleash a torrent of gold worth millions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307588708
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 02/22/2011
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 488,820
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

KEVIN POULSEN is a senior editor at and a contributor to Wired magazine. He oversees cybercrime, privacy, and political coverage for and edits the award-winning Threat Level blog (, which he founded in 2005.

Read an Excerpt


The taxi idled in front of a convenience store in downtown San Francisco while Max Vision paid the driver and unfolded his six-foot-fi ve frame from the back of the car, his thick brown hair pulled into a sleek ponytail. He stepped into the store and waited for the cab to disappear down the street before emerging for the two-block walk to his safe house.

Around him, tiny shops and newsstands awakened under the overcast sky, and suited workers fi led into the offi ce towers looming above. Max was going to work too, but his job wouldn’t have him home after nine hours for a good night’s sleep. He’d be cloistered for days this time. Once he put his plan into motion, there’d be no going home. No slipping out for a bite of dinner. No date night at the multiplex. Nothing until he was done.

This was the day he was declaring war.

His long gait took him to the Post Street Towers, from the street a fi ve-by-fourteen grid of identical bay windows, trim painted the color of the Golden Gate Bridge. He’d been coming to this apartment complex for months, doing his best to blend in with the exchange students drawn by short leases and reasonable rents. Nobody knew his name—not his real one anyway. And nobody knew his past.

Here, he wasn’t Max Butler, the small-town troublemaker driven by obsession to a moment of life-changing violence, and he wasn’t Max Vision, the self-named computer security expert paid one hundred dollars an hour to harden the networks of Silicon Valley companies. As he rode up the apartment building elevator, Max became someone else: “Iceman”—a rising leader in a criminal economy responsible for billions of dollars in thefts from American companies and consumers.

And Iceman was fed up.

For months, he’d been popping merchants around the country, prying out piles of credit card numbers that should have been worth hundreds of thousands on the black market. But the market was broken. Two years earlier Secret Service agents had driven a virtual bulldozer through the computer underworld’s largest gathering spot, arresting the ringleaders at gunpoint and sending the rest scurrying into chat rooms and small-time Web forums—all riddled with security holes and crawling with feds and snitches. It was a mess.

Whether they knew it or not, the underworld needed a strong leader to unify them. To bring order.

Off the elevator, Max idled in the hallway to check for a tail, then walked to his apartment door and entered the oppressive warmth of the rented studio. Heat was the biggest problem with the safe house. The servers and laptops crammed into the space produced a swelter that pulsed through the room. He’d brought in fans over the summer, but they provided scant relief and lofted the electric bill so high that the apartment manager suspected him of running a hydroponic dope farm. But it was just the machines, entwined in a web of cables, the most important snaking to a giant parabolic antenna aimed out the window like a sniper rifle.

Shrugging off his discomfort, Max sat at his keyboard and trained a bead on the Web forums where computer criminals gathered—virtual cantinas with names like DarkMarket and TalkCash. For two days, he hacked, his fi ngers fl ying at preternatural speed as he breached the sites’ defenses, stealing their content, log-ins, passwords, and e-mail addresses. When he tired, he crashed out on the apartment’s foldaway bed for an hour or two, then returned bleary-eyed to his work.

He fi nished with a few keystrokes that wiped out the sites’ databases with the ease of an arsonist fl icking a match. On August 16, 2006, he dispatched an unapologetic mass e-mail to the denizens of the sites he’d destroyed: They were all now members of Iceman’s own Cardersmarket website, suddenly the largest criminal marketplace in the world, six thousand users strong and the only game in town.

With one stroke, Max had undermined years of careful law enforcement work and revitalized a billion-dollar criminal underworld.

In Russia and Ukraine, Turkey and Great Britain, and in apartments, offi ces, and houses across America, criminals would awaken to the announcement of the underground’s fi rst hostile takeover. Some of them kept guns in their nightstands to protect their millions in stolen loot, but they couldn’t protect themselves from this. FBI and Secret Service agents who’d spent months or years infi ltrating the now-destroyed underground forums would read the message with equal dismay, and for a moment, all of them—hacking masterminds, thuggish Russian mobsters, masters of fake identities, and the cops sworn to catch them—would be unifi ed by a single thought.

Who is Iceman?

Table of Contents

Cops and Carders ix

Prologue xi

1 The Key 1

2 Deadly Weapons 6

3 The Hungry Programmers 14

4 The White Hat 19

5 Cyberwar! 25

6 I Miss Crime 33

7 Max Vision 42

8 Welcome to America 49

9 Opportunities 54

10 Chris Aragon 64

11 Script's Twenty-Dollar Dumps 73

12 Free Amex! 80

13 Villa Siena 85

14 The Raid 91

15 UBuy WeRush 98

16 Operation Firewall 105

17 Pizza and Plastic 115

18 The Briefing 120

19 Carders Market 124

20 The Starlight Room 130

21 Master Splyntr 134

22 Enemies 139

23 Anglerphish 144

24 Exposure 150

25 Hostile Takeover 159

26 What's in Your Wallet? 170

27 Web War One 176

28 Carder Court 183

29 One Plat and Six Classics 189

30 Maksik 194

31 The Trial 201

32 The Mall 208

33 Exit Strategy 213

34 DarkMarket 224

35 Sentencing 229

36 Aftermath 234

Epilogue 241

Notes 243

Acknowledgments 265

Customer Reviews

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Kingpin 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 33 reviews.
rfortson More than 1 year ago
First book that I've read straight through in a long time. Well written, not too technical but still covers the general concepts. Focuses on the criminals and looks at the motivation of many of the main characters. Includes links for checking out more information (most of which is still around on the internet). Highly recommended. Oh, and I bought it for $12.99 from BN, so they've fixed the pricing. I agree with the others that a nook book should be about half the printed price.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Agree with other reviewers - very disappointing to see this priced the same as a hard-cover. If this becomes a trend, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of e-books.
N3rdb0y More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book, although it was almost a twin to another book of a similar theme, but this covered from the "bad guys" perspective rather than law enforcement. Overall it was a good read. I like how the chapters were kept short and to the point. They were addicting and almost movie like. I would recommend this to anyone interested in crime and technology and how the internet has changed the way criminals do business.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is there a reason why the electronic version is the same price as the hardcover? I would very much like to buy this book, but I do not want to pay the hardcover price . . .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Would happily pay $6-8 for this book in electronic form but will not be paying full price for it! Fortunately a quick search for "Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground.PDF" provided some interesting results. Just like the movie industry, looks like the publication industry didn't learn a single thing from what the music industry went through. Oh well, their loss losing a customer willing to pay reasonable prices but not willing to be taken advantage of.
MissieS More than 1 year ago
I work with fraud at a bank and this book has brought the whole other side of fraudsters into a new light. It is written almost like a fiction novel, but with factual data. A great read!
sn00ker More than 1 year ago
Not going to do it
dltj on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Kevin Poulsen dives deep into the underground world of 'carders' ¿ individuals that steal, sell, and abuse credit card numbers. Prior to reading this book I thought that a lot of the fraud was based on stealing or intercepting credit card information from online merchants. This book tells the story, though, of stealing cards, printing them on actual plastic stock, and 'shopping' for merchandise that can be easily resold. The pace of the book is fast, and with the wide variety of characters it is hard to keep track of who is linked to who and all of the backstabbing that goes on. It is an easy read, even for those without a deep technical background (and you'll pick up an understanding of the techie bits through some well-written prose).
npbone on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I tore through this book. An extremely interesting look at what can happen to your credit card info. after you make a purchase. Kevin Poulson writes in a way that makes highly technical material understandable. You might even learn some computer stuff by reading this book. I highly recommend.
kymarlee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting book about the world of cybercrime and the intricacies of the Internet.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book reads like a fiction novel and realizing that it's not will either scare you or leave you in awe as to the power and complexity of carding schemes and technology. The technical information in the book is palatable to the not-so-tech savvy and in some ways I wish that more technical information were available, however, for the sake of continuity and palatability the author keeps the story moving.
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HunterSeeker More than 1 year ago
Great read. Poulsen does a great job presenting a highly technical subject in a way that anyone can understand. It is well written and well researched.
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