You go to your favorite pizza place, pay with your credit card, then leave. Seems like all that's happened is you've picked up a steaming box of cheese and meat. But you've actually been robbed by a guy 3,000 miles away, who is snarfing up all the data from the pizza joint's credit card validation system. And because there are thousands of other little shops using the same exact validation system software, that guy isn't just robbing you. He's robbing 1,000 other people simultaneously, placing all their credit cards in a tidy little spreadsheet, and handing them off to the highest bidder.
Sounds like something out of a William Gibson novel, but it's an actual crime that took place a few years ago. It's just one of many elaborate heists perpetrated by computer criminal Max Vision, as chronicled by technology journalist Kevin Poulsen in his true crime tale Kingpin, out in bookstores next week. Based on years of reporting, the book is a fascinating lesson in high tech crime as well as a gripping story about one of the past decade's most notorious thieves. Max was a "carder," dealing in stolen credit card information, but he was a lot more than that. He was also a talented hacker who began his career working to stop criminals - before he became one himself.
Poulsen is the creator of Wired's Threat Level blog, where he and his colleagues have won several awards for their reporting on technology, politics, and crime. So it's no surprise that Poulsen is able to tackle both the technical and the human side of Max's crimes - we don't just come to understand how Max ripped off countless people, but also what might have motivated him. How does a guy with a good Silicon Valley job and the respect of his peers wind up stealing credit cards for a living? The answer is that he does it extremely well: For a while, Max controlled the entire carding community, taking over their underground message boards and becoming their "kingpin." He was the thief who stole from other thieves.
But he was also, Poulsen is careful to point out, a conflicted young man who had trouble making friends and even more trouble controlling his impulses. He went from violent outbursts as a teenager, to high-tech criminal outbursts as an adult.
The best part of Kingpin, aside from getting a peek into the way computer crimes are committed, is Poulsen's deft way of showing us the sheer mundanity of criminal life. Like Tony Soprano, Max is surrounded by criminals who just want to lead middle class lives. His partner in carding crime, Chris Aragon, is a former real estate scammer and bank robber who has a nice house in Southern California, a beautiful family and a hot mistress - and he just wants to keep it that way. Max has his own aspirations for a similar life with a woman he loves. There's no zillion-dollar payoff here - Max and his gang earn upper-middle class salaries and little more than that.
Max is also struggling with hacker drama, the high tech underworld equivalent of office politics. The carding world is full of (rightly) paranoid types who constantly suspect each other of selling out to the cops - which, Poulsen points out, most of them are. The carder message boards are pits of accusations, crazy bickering, and jockeying for power. And the agent who finally takes Max down figures out how to infiltrate that online world by going undercover as the criminal Master Splynter and playing all the different criminals off of each other perfectly. As the hunt for Max intensifies, we watch as Max and Master Splynter rise to the top of the carding world - until one day Max does the ultimate hack, and undoes himself in the process.
If you like technothrillers, you are going to love Kingpin. Not only is it an action-packed crime story, but it's a vision of the criminal world to come. You can pre-order the book and find out more via the Kingpin website.