Dark Markets in the internet age

Marta Mª Padilla Foubelo    9 May, 2022
A computer and a coffee cup. Photo: Lauren Mancke / Unsplash

What are Dark Markets or Black Markets? This concept has been in the news for a long time as a consequence of clandestine sales. The markets for drugs and pharmaceuticals or firearms, for example.

As well as the illegal sale of animals, credit cards, child pornography, documentation, permits, licences, counterfeit money, the contracting of cosmetic operations, the hiring of hitmen, and a long etcetera. Almost anything you can think of will be on the black markets.

In the age of digitalisation, and this has been going on for a few years now, everything is modernised, even the black market. Whereas in the past it was necessary to know someone, that someone knew someone else who had a contact in a gang operating on the black market, the old-fashioned word of mouth, now it is no longer necessary.

All you need now is a computer, internet connection and, in the worst-case scenario, an “IT responsible friend” who can explain how to connect to the black market network. Although, excuse the joke, our grandchildren, children and nephews and nieces are going to know almost more than any of our friends. But the point is: a computer, internet connection and someone to help you, and you are free to search, pay and get what you really want.

What are Deep Web and Dark Web?

To give value to the part in which our IT expert friend is involved and to make it easier to understand how it works, we would like to explain this process in a very summarised way. It is true that it is not as easy as it seems to access some of the black markets, because yes, there are many places, many gangs and a lot of demand, hence the large supply.

In order to minimally understand how to gain access and which is the part where the “computer-savvy friend” will help you, you need to know in which part of the internet these black markets are to be found. That part is known as the Deep Web and Dark Web.

Although the terms Deep Web and Dark Web have a “bad reputation”, not everything on them is bad or illegal

For the sake of clarification, the term Deep Web was originally introduced in 2001 by Michael K. Bergman. Just as the Dark Web has no clear origin, it can only be said that the first times this term was used date back to 2009.

Both have the “bad reputation” of being sites where only illegal acts can be committed. What if we told you that absolutely all of us, even my mother, use the Deep Web on a daily basis?

The following is an approximation of what one can find in the three different parts of the web:

  • Surface web: These pages are the ones that are indexed in the main internet search engines. All the pages that appear after a simple search on Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. all comprise part of the Surface web. These pages can be accessed from any conventional browser such as Google Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari, etc.
  • Deep Web: These are the pages that are not indexed in the main search engines. For example, our private area in the bank, on Amazon, in our favourite clothes shop, our email inbox, even messaging services such as WhatsApp.
    That is the Deep Web. It is true that there are other services and Markets that are not indexed in the main search engines, and that would be part of the Deep Web, that carry out illicit activities. As you can see, not everything on the Deep Web is bad or illegal. These pages can also be accessed from any conventional browser.
  • Dark Web: These pages are also not indexed in the major search engines. However, they are often, but not always, associated with illicit activities. Similarly, I myself could set up a Dark Web forum and provide access only to the people I consider appropriate.
    Only people I share my URL with would be able to access it, and the forum could only deal with horoscope topics, for example. And it would not be associated with any illegal activity.
    It is true that nobody wants to be “invisible” and not take advantage of it. For example, a rather hot topic is the fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) uses the Dark Web to communicate internally. This tracking is made almost impossible because they are so protected by the protocols used in this type of navigation.

How to access Dark Markets

As already mentioned, the Dark Web pages will only be accessible through protocols or services that anonymise their users, such as Tor (The Onion Router), Freenet, I2P, Zeronet and many others. Tor is mentioned here because it is the most widely used and known by most people.

This type of browser offers layers of security in order to avoid or make it as difficult as possible to be identified while browsing, i.e., the cap with the glasses of celebrities when they go out in the centre of a big city, and the pages, instead of ending in “.com”, “.es”, “.org”, etc. They end in “.onion”. 

Once you have access to these browsers, you need to know which page of the Market you want to connect to. Sometimes, these pages can be found in search engines such as DuckDuckGo, or even in Google’s own search engine, where you can find articles sharing the latest addresses of the main Dark Web markets.

However, on other occasions, it is necessary to have that page through contacts, and here we are back to word of mouth, but via Telegram, Discord, or any other type of messaging platform. Once you have obtained that specific URL address, all you have to do is enter it through your browser, depending on the website, and, as we mentioned before, search for what you are interested in in that specific market.

Police surveillance of illegal Dark Markets

These markets, and speaking of the central concept of the article, offer everything. While it is true that some specialise in drugs, others in weapons, others in documents, etc., there will always be a Market, at the very least, that can satisfy the needs of those who are looking for it. It should be noted that this practice is just as illegal and punishable as when it is carried out in the old way.

It should be noted that police work becomes very complicated in this respect as it is very difficult and sometimes impossible to attribute a criminal act within this type of surfing. So, just as in the past there were police officers infiltrating the gangs to be able to identify all the details of illegal activities, the same thing is happening now, but in the gangs operating in the markets of this part of the web.

Police officers infiltrate gangs to identify illegal activities, just as they infiltrate the gangs operating in the markets of this part of the web.

Likewise, part of the police work focused on the Dark Web consists of setting traps for people who want to consume certain types of commerce because access alone constitutes a crime, as would be the clear example of consuming child pornography.

This consists of honeypots. A honeypot is a lure placed, in this case, on the Internet, to be targeted and attract the attention of people who want to be identified by consulting certain types of information. The Dark Web is full of honeypots to track illegal activities.

One of the most active markets in recent months has been confirmed not to specialise in the sale of a particular illegal commodity, but to be a general marketplace providing many services, as can be seen from the navigation panel on the left-hand side of the website. What can be said is that the majority of the offer is focused on the sale of drugs.

Screenshot: One of the most active markets in recent months
One of the most active markets in recent months

The same applies to another of the markets with the largest offer in recent months.  This market was at the centre of the biggest cyber-raid in the history of the Dark Web market when the site’s administrator was arrested. However, it has risen from the ashes like a phoenix and is once again one of the most popular markets.

Screenshot: one of the markets with the largest offer in recent months.
One of the markets with the largest offer in recent months.

As shown, it offers more of the same as above. Above all, it would focus on the sale of drugs.

Going even deeper into the black markets of the Dark Web, we find another one that is off to a strong start. In this case, we can already see offers for weapons, the sale of stolen goods, and even a section listed as “organs for transplants”.

As this type of Markets has been found, many more can be found. However, it is better to stop at this point, as I think we have gained enough of an idea of what is happening here.

Why should cybersecurity experts monitor the Dark Web?

I currently work in one of the teams dedicated to cybersecurity at Telefónica Tech. We regularly visit this type of websites, mainly to analyse the buying and selling of access to services, as well as sales of privileged information and vulnerabilities associated with our clients’ exposed assets.

We may find, for instance, sales of username and password for access to VPN services, access to remote desktops exposed to the Internet, and even sales of exploits, i.e. software that would exploit vulnerabilities in the exposed services and could allow, for instance, remote code execution on the victim company’s systems. Any type of sale that could result in an intrusion into our clients’ systems would be covered by this type of search.

There is only some obvious advice left to give here.

  • If you need any drugs, the best thing to do is to go to your doctor and have him prescribe them.
  • If you want to obtain a licence, study or make the necessary arrangements, you should always use the legal route.
  • If you want to have an aesthetic operation, we refer to beauty and the beast, beauty is on the inside!
  • In case you want to kill someone, the best idea is to count to 10 and approach the ” issue ” in a less dangerous way.

Generally speaking, the items found on these sites are often illegal or unethical to use at best. If they were legal merchandise, they could be purchased from legitimate portals. We should think very carefully about any activity in this type of environment.

Before finishing this post, we must remember that purchases on these types of portals are always outside the applicable tax system and that —in almost all cases— the items or services to be purchased will be illegal at an international level, with the purchase process itself (or subsequent attempted use) being a criminal offence in the relevant jurisdiction.

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