Organised gangs have adopted "KGB-style" tactics to hire high-flying computer students to commit Internet crime, a report said on Friday.
Criminals are targeting universities, computer clubs and online forums to find undergraduates, according to Internet security firm McAfee.
Some gangs have sponsored promising students from other disciplines to attend computer courses before planting them in businesses as "sleepers".
McAfee said the students write computer viruses, commit identity theft and launder money in a multi-billion dollar industry that is more lucrative than the drugs trade.
The gangs' tactics echo the way Russian agents sought out experts at trade conferences or universities during the Cold War, the company said in an annual report.
"Although organised criminals may have less of the expertise and access needed to commit cybercrimes, they have the funds to buy the necessary people to do it for them," the report says.
McAfee said its study was based partly on FBI and European intelligence.
In Eastern Europe, some people are lured into "cybercrime" because of high unemployment and low wages.
"Many of these cybercriminals see the Internet as a job opportunity," McAfee quoted FBI Internet security expert Dave Thomas as saying. "With low employment, they can use their technical skills to feed their family."
Hackers are paid to write computer viruses that can infect millions of machines to discover confidential information or send unwanted "spam" emails.
This "spyware" can detect credit card numbers or other personal information which is then used by fraudsters.
Criminals trawl through social networking Web sites which allow people to leave their pictures and personal details.
Their research helps them to target "phishing" attacks, where people are sent fraudulent emails to trick them into revealing credit card numbers.
Hackers are increasingly hired to spy on businesses, McAfee said. "Corporate espionage is big business," it added.
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