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Below the surface, the internet you recognize and use for your browsing is a shadowy, digital netherworld. According to a report by Cybersecurity Ventures, cybercrime is projected to cost the world more than $6 trillion annually by 2021. At the heart of most cybercrime is the Dark Web.

The Dark Web is making its way into the public sphere more and more, but much remains unclear and misunderstood about this mysterious digital world that most of us will never see. Here’s what you need to know:

Three Layers of the Web

The World Wide Web has three distinct layers. The first is the Surface Web, where most people do searches using standard browsers. The second is the Deep Web, which is not indexed in standard search engines and is accessed by logging in directly to a site; it often requires some form of authentication for access. Finally, there is the Dark Web, which is only accessible through specific browsers. Its most common browser, Tor, encrypts all traffic and allows users to remain anonymous.

Gaining access to Dark Web sites often requires an invitation which is offered only after a substantial vetting process. Purveyors of these sites want to keep out law enforcement, although “white hat” hackers (computer security experts) and law enforcement have successfully broken through. Some identity theft protection services provide Dark Web monitoring to see if your personal information, such as your credit card, has been stolen. Often it is through the monitoring of the Dark Web that security professionals first become aware of massive data breaches by researching the commonality of large troves of personal information being sold.

Never click on any links in an email regardless of how legitimate the email may appear unless you have confirmed the email is indeed legitimate.

It is on these criminal Dark Web sites that all kinds of malware, like ransomware, are bought and sold. Other goods and services bought, sold and leased on these Dark Web cybercrime websites include login credentials to bank accounts, personal information stolen through data breaches, skimmers (devices to attack credit card processing equipment and ATMs) and ATM manuals that include default passwords.

Be Aware of Cybercrime Tools

Amazingly, the Dark Web sites have ratings and reviews, tech support, software updates, sales and loyalty programs just like regular retail websites. Many also offer money laundering services. Additionally, botnets (short for “robot network”) of compromised computers can be leased on the Dark Web to deliver malware as well as phishing and spear phishing emails (these appear to be sent from a trusted sender, but are seeking confidential information).

While the actual number of cybercriminal geniuses is relatively small, they’ve developed a lucrative business model. They create sophisticated malware, other cybercrime tools and their delivery systems, then sell or lease those tools to less sophisticated criminals.

The proliferation of ransomware attacks provides a good example of how this business model operates. Ransomware infects your computer and encrypts all of your data. Once your data has been encrypted, you, the victim of a ransomware attack, are told that a ransom must be paid within a short period of time or your data will be destroyed. Ransomware attacks have increased dramatically in the past few years and are now the fastest growing cybercrime.

Cybersecurity Ventures says companies are victimized by ransomware every 14 seconds, at a cost of $11.5 billion worldwide this year. While the creation and development of new ransomware strains requires great knowledge and skill, most ransomware attacks are being perpetrated by less sophisticated cybercriminals who purchase the ransomware on the Dark Web.

Regardless of how protective you are of your personal information, you are only as safe as the legitimate institutions that have your information.

Phishing, and more targeted spear phishing, have long been the primary way that malware, such as ransomware and keystroke logging malware used for identity theft purposes, are delivered. Phishing and spear phishing lure victims into clicking links within emails that download malware onto their computer systems.

Sophisticated cybercriminals now use artificial intelligence to gather personal information from social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other sites to produce spear phishing emails with high success rates.

How to Protect Yourself

The best thing you can do to protect yourself from having your information turn up on the Dark Web is to avoid downloading the malware that can lead to your information being stolen or your computer being made a part of a botnet. Never click on any links in an email regardless of how legitimate the email may appear unless you have confirmed that the email is indeed legitimate.

Relying on security software is not enough to protect you, because the best security software is always at least a month behind the latest strains of malware. Regardless of how protective you are of your personal information, you are only as safe as the legitimate institutions that have your information.

In this era of constant data breaches, it is advisable to use an identity theft protection service that will monitor the Dark Web and alert you if your information appears there.  And there are websites which offer guidance on what to do if this happens to you. These monitors are a small flashlight shedding a beam on a very dark section of the digital universe and may help avoid major headaches before it’s too late.

By Steve Weisman

Steve Weisman is a Senior Lecturer in Law, Taxation and Financial Planning at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.

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