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Darknet market: What you should know about dark web marketplaces

We don’t recommend venturing into a dark web marketplace on your own, but we understand your curiosity. Let us safely guide you through it. In this article, we’ll demystify darknet markets, explain what they are, and cover everything you should know about the darkest corner of the internet.

Darknet market: What you should know about dark web marketplaces

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Note: NordVPN does not encourage the use of darknet marketplaces, especially when looking to purchase or sell illicit goods and services. This article is strictly for informational purposes.

What is a darknet market?

A darknet market is a type of online shop that runs on a hidden part of the internet called the dark web, which you can’t find with regular search engines. Picture these markets as the secret versions of well-known online shops like eBay or Amazon.

But here’s the twist — darknet markets primarily sell items or services that are often illegal or heavily regulated. While you can find legal items like art and jewelry (and they are not always stolen), such occurrences are rare.

But what exactly is the dark web, and why is it the preferred location for darknet marketplaces?

What is a dark web?

Dark web definition

The dark web is a part of the internet that is hidden and not accessible on mainstream search engines (like Google or Bing). You can only access the dark web using specific software (e.g., Tor, or The Onion Router). While the dark web can be used for legitimate purposes, it is often associated with nefarious activities (like drug trafficking, hacking, the sale of stolen goods, and identity theft).

Darknet marketplaces operate on the dark web because the dark web offers features you won’t find on the regular internet (also known as the surface web). The dark web’s design gives darknet markets a kind of shield, making it harder for authorities to spot and disrupt their operations and trace the identities of those running these shops.

While this shield — multiple layers of protection — doesn’t make illicit activity invisible to law enforcement, the dark web’s combination of anonymity and encryption makes the dark web a more desirable space for these markets than the surface web.

What is sold on darknet markets?

Despite the dark web’s bad reputation, some items in the darknet marketplace are legal. Moreover, any business can sell its products on the dark web. Not everyone looking to buy on the dark web is seeking something illegal. Some may simply wish to purchase goods anonymously.

Nevertheless, most items sold on the dark web are illegal or highly regulated. In fact, as of 2020, nearly 57% of the sites found on the Tor dark web contained illegal material of some kind. In the following sections, we will explore what is sold on darknet markets and identify the target buyers of these illicit goods.

Illegal drugs

The Guardian called darknet markets the eBay of drug dealing because illegal products such as drugs can be found in more than half of these shops. The way the dark web operates opens up opportunities for drug sellers, allowing them to reach a broader customer base and expand their market beyond local or regional buyers.

Weapons and guns

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), nearly all firearms are manufactured legally. Yet the journey from their creation to final use involves several steps, making it easier for them to end up in the illegal market. For instance, an employee might take an unmarked pistol and sell it on the darknet market.

In many places, strict rules govern who can buy, own, and use weapons. People or groups who can’t meet these requirements might turn to the darknet market as another way to get what they need.

Hacking services

On the darknet, you have solo hackers who are skilled in their craft and work independently. Then you have professional hackers, some of whom may have ties to criminal organizations or governments and take on more serious projects. There are also hacker groups that collaborate on one complex task. All these individuals and groups actively market their services on the dark web, catering to a range of illicit needs.

The hacking tools and services offered on the dark web may vary from infecting computer systems with malware to breaking into social media accounts. Both businesses and individuals might use these services to spy, gain a competitive edge, or for personal reasons.

Pirated files

On darknet markets, you can discover a wide variety of pirated files. Unauthorized copies include the latest movies and TV shows, unreleased tracks and concert recordings, and video games — sometimes even before their official release. Beyond copyright-infringing content, darknet markets also illegally distribute professional software, educational materials, and courses from various online platforms for a cheaper price than on the surface web.

Explicit content

Unfortunately, the dark web is infamous for hosting and spreading not just explicit but also illegal content, including child exploitation material and non-consensual content. This illicit content harms the victims involved in its creation and fuels a broader culture of exploitation and violence. The dark web’s anonymity hinders law enforcement in tracking down perpetrators and offering support to victims.

Personal information

Stolen data sold on darknet markets encompasses a wide range of information, including full names, birthdates, Social Security numbers, credit card information, bank account details, email addresses, and passwords. Cybercriminals also trade in medical records, driving licenses, and passport details. The consequences for individuals whose data is sold can be devastating. However, darknet market vendors are indifferent to the victims’ plight, focusing solely on profit.

The cost of stolen data on dark web markets

The NordVPN dark web case study revealed the cost of some items containing sensitive data sold on the dark web marketplace. Researchers found that:

  • Payment card data costs around $10 and ranks as the most commonly found item on the darknet market. Mobile phone numbers and online accounts cost around the same amount. For instance, a compromised streaming service account could sell for $10, while an Uber account costs $12.
  • Cryptocurrency wallets and account login details attract more interest than bank accounts. The priciest accounts include Binance, averaging $395; Kraken, averaging $384; and, averaging $350.
  • Passport copies topped the list as the most expensive item, averaging around $600. However, prices varied widely by country. Argentinian passports were the least expensive at $9, while Czech, Slovakian, and Lithuanian passports had the highest price at $3,800.
  • The EU boasted the highest-priced personal addresses, averaging $11.40, and business addresses, averaging $199.99. However, US voter emails averaged $99, surpassing those from other countries.

While the prices for stolen information may seem high, especially when purchased in bulk, the repercussions for individuals whose data is sold can be higher. People whose data gets sold online may face financial losses, damage to their credit scores, and identity theft. The road to recovery can be lengthy and complicated, involving legal action, financial problems, and stress.

Scam and fraud on dark web marketplaces

Scams and fraud are rampant in dark web marketplaces due to minimal regulation and the challenges of tracking and prosecuting offenders. Be aware of some common types of scams and fraudulent activity on the darknet, including:

  • Exit scams. Operators of some darknet marketplaces first build users’ trust by conducting business legitimately. However, they eventually disappear, taking the customers’ money in escrow.
  • Phishing attacks. Similar to the broader internet, the dark web is plagued with phishing. Fake websites often direct users to pages where their personal information is stolen and misused.
  • Malware sales. The dark web is a notorious hub for buying and selling malware. Scammers use malware to commit fraud and steal information from unwary users.
  • Ponzi schemes. Ponzi schemes promise investors “little or no risk” investments with high returns. In reality, scammers pay early investors using funds taken from new investors. However, these schemes inevitably collapse when scammers can no longer pay back earlier investors.
  • Money-laundering services. This financial crime is a huge issue on the dark web. People use cryptocurrencies and dark web escrow services to obscure the origins of illicit funds and transactions.

The allure of anonymity and lack of regulation make darknet marketplaces hotspots for various scams and fraudulent activity. If you ever decide to explore these murky waters, ensure you’ve familiarized yourself with the common dangers of darknet markets. By understanding scammers’ tactics, you can better protect yourself and your assets from deception.

What happened to Silk Road?

Silk Road was the first leading marketplace on the dark web. It could only be accessed through the Tor Browser. Users conducted all transactions in cryptocurrency, specifically Bitcoin. On Silk Road, users could purchase various products. However, drug sales were the most prevalent and profitable. By 2013, drugs accounted for 70% of all listings on Silk Road.

The FBI shut down Silk Road in 2013 following an extensive investigation led by US Senator Charles Schumer. This thorough investigation culminated in the closure of the platform and the arrest of its founder, Ross Ulbricht. Ulbricht faced life in prison for distributing narcotics and engaging in one of the most significant criminal enterprises in history. Additional charges included computer hacking, trafficking in false identity documents, and money laundering.

Although the Silk Road is no longer active, it established a template for other dark web e-commerce sites to follow. Numerous other markets tried to establish their presence after the demise of Silk Road, but for many, their success was short-lived.

  • Silk Road 2.0. This site was meant to be a reboot of Silk Road and came online just a month later. However, police shut it down in 2014.
  • Utopia. Undercover agents shut down Utopia in 2014, just eight days after its launch.
  • Black Goblin Market. This darknet marketplace debuted in 2014 but was shut down after a critical security error.

What is the future of dark web marketplaces?

Even today, in the post-Silk Road era, numerous darknet markets continue to emerge and thrive. US agencies, including the FBI, collaborate with international law enforcement to curb the expansion of these dark web markets worldwide. The most recent closure occurred in 2022, when German authorities, coordinated by US law enforcement, seized and shut down Hydra Market, the world’s largest and oldest darknet marketplace.

In response, many administrators of dark web forums are tightening access controls. They rigorously vet potential participants’ credentials or “bona fides” before allowing them to join these secretive online communities. These measures aim to create more secure forums, making it increasingly difficult for outsiders, including law enforcement, to penetrate.

Law enforcement agencies continue to refine their strategies to infiltrate these networks. However, the dynamic nature of the dark web ensures that when one market goes down, another quickly rises to take its place. This ongoing cycle underscores a fundamental issue — the persistent demand for the goods and services these markets offer. As long as there is a supply of and demand for illicit goods, darknet markets will persist.

Protect your data with Dark Web Monitoring

Realistically, how likely is it that your information is on the dark web? Given the many ways sensitive information can be compromised, the answer is “very likely.” Your personal information can land on the dark web through various means, such as data breaches, phishing attacks, malware and spyware, unsecured public Wi-Fi networks, or weak passwords. However, you can use a variety of effective methods to monitor whether your data has landed on the dark web and to take prompt action.

First, ensure you follow data privacy tips and use strong, unique passwords for every account. Once you are satisfied with your passwords, set up two-factor authentication (2FA) for an additional layer of security. Also, always use a VPN if you use an unsecured public Wi-Fi. Lastly, be cautious about the personal information you share online.

For added security, consider using NordVPN’s Dark Web monitoring. This feature continuously scans dark web sites, such as hacker forums and marketplaces, for signs of your leaked credentials. You can enable Dark Web Monitor in your NordVPN app by navigating to “Settings” > “Tools.” Regular use of this feature can help maintain your digital hygiene, alerting you if your data appears on the dark web so you can take immediate action.

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