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An investigation by tech podcast Reply All has exposed an underground economy of young hackers stealing and selling valuable Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram usernames. After speaking to a listener whose Snapchat username had been stolen, they tracked down the culprits to a website and Discord chatroom called xan.ax, where a group of young male friends from around the world boast about the money they make from selling social media accounts on forums such as OG Users.
The victim, Lizzie, who had been an early adopter of Snapchat, was targeted because she had a simple one-word username, “lizard.” This is known as an OG (i.e. original) username. While it turned out that her account was stolen by guessing her password, many others are taken using a method called SIM-swapping or SIM-hijacking. Hackers find out the phone number associated with a social media account, then pose as the owner to ask the network to transfer the number to a new SIM card. This enables them to access accounts that have two-factor authentication set up, where ownership is proven by typing in a code sent to the phone number associated with the account.
This revelation has called into question the security tools used by most of the major tech platforms, including Facebook, Amazon and Google. In fact, it implies that an account with two-factor authentication set up could be more accessible to hackers than one simply secured with a strong password.
Reply All’s investigation also revealed an intriguing online subculture, dominated by boys in their teens and early 20s. They love gaming, street style and rap music, and like many of their Gen Z peers, they have an entrepreneurial streak. They are using their tech skills to steal something that is highly valuable among their age group (a cool social media username) and using the profits to buy the designer brands worn by the rappers and influencers they aspire to emulate. The most desirable usernames sell for thousands of dollars - one hacker claimed he sold @car for $70,000.
Despite the black market value of these usernames, the hackers don’t see their activities as a major crime, because the original owners of OG usernames didn’t pay for them. However, as The Atlantic stated in a recent article, “everything on social media is for sale,” and therefore, has monetary value. Its accessibility to young people makes SIM-swapping and other forms of low-level hacking a new form of petty crime. Whereas teenagers might have tried shoplifting or pick-pocketing in the past, hacking is the equivalent for a generation of digital natives who spend their spare time online rather than hanging out at the mall.
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