Threat actors are generating, spending and reinvesting $1.5 trillion worth of cybercrime profits, according to a nine-month academic study.

For its new report titled “The Web of Profit,” Bromium worked with criminology researcher Dr. Mike McGuire at the University of Surrey to examine the revenue flow and profit distribution from money laundering, data trading, ransomware and other illicit activities.

The report compared profits based on the size of the cybercriminal organization involved. While small and medium-sized collectives generated between $30,000 and $50,000 in profit, large, multinational groups can make more than $1 billion. As the report’s title suggests, however, the researchers described cybercrime as an interconnected web of both nefarious and legitimate activities.

Breaking Down the Underground Economy

The $1.5 trillion figure — which would be the 13th largest GDP in the world if cybercriminals represented their own country — is broken down into several areas, such as working in illicit or illegal online markets. The total profits include $860 billion from illicit online markets, $500 billion from stealing intellectual property or trade secrets and $160 billion in data trading. Ransomware and cybercrime-as-a-service contributed much less to the overall threat economy at $1 billion and $1.6 billion, respectively.

Much like social networks offer a way to share content rather than create it, the report noted that the real profits in the emerging cybercrime economy tend to come from selling the means to attack rather than conducting threat campaigns directly. Although a cybercriminal for hire might only make $200 for a small attack, the study revealed that zero-day iOS exploits can generate up to $250,000. Other malware kits make $200 to $600 per exploit.

Bromium described a sort of hierarchy in the cybercrime economy. While attackers on the front lines may make a basic income of approximately $30,000 a year, those in “manager” roles can generate far more. In fact, just 50 stolen credit card records could lead to $2 million per job, the report noted.

Cybercrime Profits on the Rise

The potential for illicit profit will increase as cybercriminal groups and their platforms become more sophisticated and customer-friendly. The report noted that one now-defunct platform generated somewhere between $12.5 and $23.3 million through ads alone, which contributed to its total of $54 million.

As Bromium CEO Gregory Webb put it, “The platform criminality model is productizing malware and making cybercrime as easy as shopping online. Not only is it easy to access cybercriminal tools, services and expertise: it means enterprises and governments alike are going to see more sophisticated, costly and disruptive attacks as the web of profit continues to gain momentum.”

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