Digital Shadows has published an updated blog which examines the state of the dark web travel industry. 

Earlier this year, the Photon Research Team described how ybercriminals active on dark web forums and marketplaces have, for years, been peddling heavily discounted flight tickets and hotel rooms, selling airline-specific accounts with associated air miles, and sharing tutorials and top tips for conducting travel-related fraud. 

Researchers found that airline-specific customer accounts available on cybercriminal marketplaces increase in price depending on associated frequent flyer points or air miles. "Cut-price gift cards for airlines–either stolen or purchased with airline points or stolen credit cards–were also available, often at massive discounts of 30 to 50% off retail value. Third-party booking sites didn’t escape the cybercriminals’ attention either. Discussions on cybercriminal forums alleged that these sites often have poor security, which means they are perceived as being easier targets for carding or scam reservations. The travel booking tutorials we looked at described how fraudulently-acquired flights are usually booked at the last minute so that by the time the airline notices the fraud, the illicitly-boarded plane has already jetted off into the distance," report the researchers. 

In the updated blog, Digital Shadows examines three particularly prolific threat actors active in the underground travel industry - Patriarh, Serggik00 and Rapesec - to see how they are faring amid lockdowns and restricted travel due to COVID-19. 

1. Patriarh - The Photon Research Team found advertisements for Patriarh on several Russian-language cybercriminal forums, to include an offer to find deals for their customers that were 45-50 percent cheaper than The level of engagement, however, has dropped significantly, say the researchers. 

"Patriarh’s accounts have not posted in their dedicated threads since the beginning of April 2020. Posts that Patriarh made at the start of April indicate that they fully intended to offer their services throughout the summer. One message from 03 Apr 2020 announced, “Holiday season is beginning!” and provided a list of genuine contact details for getting in touch with the service. The post warned of a record number of fake Telegram profiles purporting to represent Patriarh that had circulated the underground and cautioned potential customers to ensure they were communicating with a real Patriarh account. This post–gearing up for a full summer season of sales–suggests that COVID-19 has entirely derailed Patriarh’s plans," write the researchers. 

2. Serggik00 -  Active on Russian-language cybercriminal forums, Serggik00’s advertisements offered hotel and airline bookings, car rentals, excursions, and even wedding packages. Similar to Patriarh, Serggik00 appears to have suffered from the global lockdown. 

3. Rapesec - The platform advertised alleged 60 percent discounts of flights and hotel and was active on multiple well-known English-language cybercriminal marketplaces. "Rapesec’s presence across the English-language scene appeared to have all but disappeared. Digital Shadows identified a profile for “rapesec” on Dark Market that referenced flights and hotel bookings. However, the vendor’s current offerings only include a counterfeit passport, with nothing available in terms of airline tickets or room reservations," writes the team. 

Overall impact

The "shadow travel scene," say the researchers, has felt the impact of the global lockdowns due to COVID-19. According to the Photon Research Team, vendors engaged in this industry seem to be taking one of three approaches:

  1. Staying silent and not bothering to post new advertisements for travel services
  2. Promoting alternative aspects of the travel industry 
  3. Carrying on as if nothing has happened

In addition, the research team found evidence that cybercriminals are looking forward to a post-COVID-19 world, where borders are open and travel comes back.

"As travel bans are gradually being lifted and “air bridges” introduced, especially across Europe, it will be interesting to see how quickly other travel vendors react and resume their advertisements for fraudulent airline tickets, hotel rooms, and the like. Just as interesting will be seeing how many of the previously well-established travel vendors will have been able to weather the storm, and how fast their trade will pick up again," concludes the team.