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Cybercrime Doesn't Pay As Much As You'd Think

Legit cybersecurity professionals typically make more than the average cybercriminal, a new survey says.

Cybercrime may be where the money is, but the average cybercriminal doesn't make big bucks: He or she brings in about $30,000 per year, according to a new study by the Ponemon Institute. That's about one-fourth the average salary of a legitimate security professional, the study says.

The "Flipping The Economics of Attacks" report, published today and commissioned by Palo Alto Networks, surveyed more than 10,000 hackers across the white hat, grey hat, and black hat realms. The report is based on a sample of more than 300 respondents, who hailed mainly from the US, UK, and Germany and, according to Ponemon, are skilled hackers -- some of whom had converted to the white hat side. It's likely that some respondents were from other parts of the world, including Eastern Europe, however, Ponemon says.

Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute, says a criminal hacker's income was definitely much lower than he had expected. "The perception by some is that they do this 'work,' make a lot of money and then retire at an early age. But they have to work very hard for a small income," he says.

The top of the cybercrime hierarchy, typically organized crime syndicates, profit most from cyber attacks. "That's maybe about one percent. The vast majority doing the day-to-day stealing aren't making the big money," says Scott Simkin , senior threat intelligence manager at Palo Alto Networks. "The truth of the matter is they are not all going to make hundreds of thousands of dollars."

But Tom Kellermann, chief cybersecurity officer at Trend Micro, says some data in the study may be a bit skewed since it doesn't appear to include data from hackers in Russia, Brazil, and China, for example. "They are the ones that leverage the most pernicious targeted attacks," he says. The report appears to be drawn more from "opportunist" attackers than organized cybercrime gangs going after the Fortune 1000, for example, he says.

Nearly 75% of the hackers in the survey say attackers look for weak, easy, and less costly targets to hit, and a skilled attacker after about one week will halt his hack against a target if he doesn't score a successful attack in that timeframe. An attacker takes about 147 hours to plan and pull off an attack against a well-secured enterprise, but only 70 hours to execute one with "typical" security.

"It's getting easier for a large percent of attackers" because of their improving skills, and free and widely available tools, Ponemon says.

Still, even if an attacker gives up on his target, he can try coming through a link in the target's supply chain, notes Trend Micro's Kellermann.

Think retailer Target, whose HVAC vendor was the weak link that doomed the big-box store in its epic data breach.

"Spear phishing still represents the majority of attacks. The rest are leveraged through watering hole attacks, malvertising, and mobile," Kellermann says.

More than half of the hackers in the survey say sharing threat intelligence is one of the best ways to prevent or thwart an attack, and some 40% of attacks can be stopped with the sharing and deployment of threat intel. The full report is available for download.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
2/10/2016 | 5:46:47 AM
Re: Perhaps, but...
How very sad that someone actually sat down and tried to write an authoratitive piece on the average financial returns of cybercrime. Please only appreciate this study if you are devoid of any intelligence. 
User Rank: Apprentice
2/4/2016 | 9:25:50 AM
analysis of comparison
Comparison of what the low level criminal could do also needs work. The average income in east European countries is much less than even a part time hacker making $30k. In China i have seen $150/month salaries having hard time buying iPhones
Christian Bryant
Christian Bryant,
User Rank: Ninja
2/2/2016 | 7:33:02 PM
Re: Perhaps, but...
I have to agree with Whoopty here.  After reading the report in full, I just can't buy that 1) there was total disclosure regarding both hours spent on and money earned from cybercrime, and 2) that we are even able to answer the question of how much is lost every year in terms of actual theft (your money goes into my pocket).  

I think this type of data analysis is best put into a purely technical framework based upon hard data, but of course some of that data could be classified.  You take actual names, numbers from their bank accounts over time, activity from their terminals and known hacking-associated projects that returned real results.

The report notes:

"To complete this analysis, we extrapolate the total hours that attackers devote to hacking activities each year. Drawing from prior research, we assume 80 percent of all attacks are lodged against organizations with a typical or ordinary security infrastructure and 20 percent with an excellent security infrastructure. This yields a weighted average of 705 total hours per year. To derive an hourly attacker labor rate of $40.75, we simply divide adjusted annual compensation by total hours worked."


"Does crime pay? For comparison purposes, we show an approximate labor rate derived from salary statistics compiled in recent research, where the fully loaded hourly labor rate for an experienced IT security professional is $60.36, which is 38.8 percent higher than the hourly rate compiled for attackers. It is important to note attackers have more leisure time than gainfully employed security analysts. Our analysis assumes an average of only 705 hours worked per year for attackers versus 1,918 hours per annum by experienced IT security analysts."

Something just doesn't feel right about the numbers, here, especially when you are trying to attach hours worked to hacktivities.  Every one might take a different amount of time, especially depending on whether you are using someone else's tools or writing your own, or helping out on a job as opposed to going solo.  

My gut says to get the real numbers, we need to surveillance and harder data than what we have in this first draft...

Joe Stanganelli
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
2/2/2016 | 6:37:01 PM
...but not bad for part-time, right?
$30k a year, okay, but are there stats on how many hours in the year they are working?  I imagine they're not at this 40 to 60 hours a week.
User Rank: Apprentice
2/2/2016 | 10:13:54 AM
Re: Perhaps, but...
I agree any survey done on this topic is due to be completely illogical. Didn't they just get a couple million recently? What self respected criminal is going to be available for a survey let alone respond. Those that do for shame. Especially with cybercrime on the rise. You also have to take into account people who are into corporate espionage using hacking from within the company. I'm sure someone is paying these guys.
Kelly Jackson Higgins
Kelly Jackson Higgins,
User Rank: Strategist
2/2/2016 | 8:00:14 AM
Re: Perhaps, but...
Absolutely, @Whoopty. :)

That's the caveat noted in the story--Russia, Brazil, China, weren't as heavily represented, so it's more of a sampling of how not all cybercriminals are making the big bucks. 
User Rank: Ninja
2/2/2016 | 7:46:28 AM
Perhaps, but...
While I can definitely see the average security professional earning more than the odd script-kiddie or even the low-level hacking groups, one thing to bear in mind with crime statistics, especially when they rely on survey data, is that they will not have anywhere near to a comprehensive list of responders. 

If you are comitting high-level, high-finance computer fraud or hacking, then you will not be answering a survey about it. If you're a Chinese nation-state hacker taking down millions in U.S. industry, you aren't going to talk about it. 

While the average cyber-criminal may not be a big money earner, make no mistake, there are some very lucrative hacking groups out there.
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