The dark web can sell weird things, but much of its commerce takes place in marketplaces.
In our last European Marketplaces Report, we shed light on the role of marketplaces in the curious world of the dark web.
Digital editor, Scarlette Isaac, takes a close look at what we’ve uncovered.
A trip to the dark side
The dark web, that shadowy world of illicit content that uses the structure of the internet as we know it, but is only accessible through special software, computer configurations or permissions, is not just a hotbed of conspiracy theories, it’s also home to a thriving e-commerce market – and marketplaces are just as popular there as they are in the light. Dark web markets (DWMs), like everything digital, have seen a spike in growth during the pandemic as more users turn to the web to buy things, in this case quasi-legal and illegal. Most simply make it easier for buyers and sellers to connect, so they are effectively pure marketplaces, while others have also started selling their own items, as mixed marketplaces. Most sell drugs – both ‘legal’ and illegal – and weapons, while most trade in stolen data, usually card data, as well as fake IDs. Almost all accept payment in Bitcoin, although some accept payment in a range of cryptocurrencies.
What is it worth?
Unsurprisingly, it’s hard to get numbers on how many DWMs there are and what kind of business they do. A University study released in 2020 identified 38 dark markets, including Silk Road, White House Market, Corona Market, Dark0de Reborn, and Invictus Market. There are many more and the list rotates as authorities around the world close some, others are launched or relaunched. The study also cites “European authorities” who estimated that between 2011 and 2015 drug sales on DWMs reached $44 million per year. A later study estimated that by early 2016, sales of DWM drugs had reached between $170 million and $300 million per year. Recently, an Italian DWM called Berlusconi – known primarily for selling stolen IDs – was seized by Italian police who estimated his annual transactions at €2 million. Another DWM, Darkmarket, which was dismantled by Europol in January 2021 also sheds light on the level of activity seen in the dark web. According to the police, Darkmarket had around 500,000 users, creating around 320,000 transactions with 2,400 sellers – mostly using Bitcoin.
Access the dark web
The dark web and all sites on it, including DWMs, exist as an overlay network on top of the traditional internet. These sites, collectively known as “hidden services”, require special browsers to access them. The most common is Tor, a free and open-source browser technology that enables anonymous dark web browsing. Users download Tor to host relays or nodes that help them access “onion” services, which are sites configured to work only with Tor. Onion services are listed with .onion URLs that include an opaque string in the address. For example, a URL for Silk Road Market, a former black market and most famous dark website, was silkroad7rn2puhj[.]onion.
How DWMPs work
Apart from the illicit nature of the products offered and the browser technology used to access these sites, DWMs actually operate as an analogue of traditional marketplaces. Sellers advertise their products on the site, which gives them an audience. Customers choose what they want, pay for it, and the seller usually sorts the delivery. The market holds the money until the consumer receives the goods and then releases the funds to the seller. Customers also leave reviews, which are an important part of building a brand reputation as it would be in the world of light. The DWM “industry” is supported by search engines and news websites such as Grams, DeepDotWeb and darknetlive, which aggregate information on all active dark markets. DWMs are also prone to scams and fraud and more and more of them are using escrow services to hold buyers’ money pending delivery, much like traditional marketplaces do. This evolution of DWMs to be more like those in the “real” world is significant. This marks a maturity in the market that has gone from something very niche among cyberpunks and those with the technical know-how to run dark web browsers such as Onion and Tor, to now something much more mainstream, in prey to scams and misinformation. DWM’s biggest sales growth area is in hacked or stolen data, which in turn drives the growth of hacking of consumer websites and enterprise systems – which is about the only place where DWM impinge on the general public.
This article was originally published in the European Marketplaces Report 2021. Download the full report here and learn about the wider European market landscape, including consumer experience, latest trends and new market patterns.