It was a late summer evening. I was meeting a man with no name in an empty parking lot, in order to buy a fraction of something called a Bitcoin.
Why? Because it’s the primary currency of online black-markets.
The most infamous online black-market is a website called Silk Road, where you can buy just about any illicit drug imaginable. But drugs are just the pinnacle of a vast, murky iceberg.
Silk Road is the reason I was purchasing the Bitcoin, but I wasn’t after drugs or contraband. I was buying information. I wanted to map the online underworld and was hoping to buy lists of links to other black-market sites.
Over the summer, I’d amassed a list of “hidden services” like Silk Road, which require the use of Tor software—an acronym for The Onion Router. Tor allows users some degree of anonymity by encrypting communications and relaying internet traffic through multiple proxies worldwide in order to mask users’ locations, as well as hide servers that host hidden service websites. (But Tor isn’t foolproof.)
FBI 1, TOR 0
My list of hidden services radically shrank on August 4th when the FBI managed to hack Tor and deliver malware that relayed users’ MAC addresses and the location of the servers hosting the websites they were accessing.
The purpose of the attack was to identify Freedom Hosting’s servers, because they hosted child pornography. Freedom Hosting was likely responsible for near seventy five percent of Tor’s hidden services. Thus, the FBI’s attack on Freedom Hosting made many of Tor’s hidden services obsolete.
The eBay of narcotics—Silk Road—wasn’t hosted on Freedom Hosting’s servers and remains active as I write this article. Silk Road allows vendors to sell drugs and other contraband to remote users. The identities of both vendor and customer are anonymous. (Although according to Forbes‘ Andy Greenberg, a savvy searcher can track a user’s activity on Silk Road relatively easily).
Silk Road also holds payment in escrow until the buyer confirms delivery of the product they ordered. Buyers can leave feedback on sellers; thus, sellers can develop a reputation—a brand. Silk Road also shows the number of purchases a buyer has made under a given screen-name. Some vendors won’t sell to buyers without a history, or they’ll ask that they make small purchases before making any big-ticket transactions.
Silk Road has created a system of "trust" in an area highly susceptible to scams—virtual organized crime.
Shoppers, on the flip side, can be assured that a vendor with 300+ positive customer feedbacks is a pretty safe bet. In short, Silk Road has created a system of “trust” in an area highly susceptible to scams—virtual organized crime.
Unlike some other marketplaces, Silk Road forbids the sale of child pornography, murder for hire, stolen credit card accounts, forged currency, or weapons.
Prior to August 4th, I ‘d compiled a list of several hundred hidden websites that advertised such products and services as forged U.S. currency and supposed hit services. Though some of the sites on my post-August 4th list continue to work, most do not. I wondered: Are there active sites that I don’t know about that are still offering such services and products? This is why I was meeting an anonymous man to buy a fraction of a Bitcoin. I would purchase the information.
Bitcoins are a digital crypto-currency that have become a symbol of online anarchy. Readily traded by techno-anarchists and financial speculators, their value has steadily risen against the U.S. dollar over the last two years.
Though it’s possible to buy them online, new regulations make it harder to exchange them hassle-free because they are treated as financial instruments. PayPal also has a policy against using its accounts for purchasing bitcoins because of rampant fraud.
To avoid the hassle of proving my identity or dealing with shady online exchanges, I chose to trade with a physical person. I arranged the exchange through an online forum that facilitates local face-to-face transactions.
He finalized the transaction from his iPhone and provided me with a secret code that confirmed that .36 of a bitcoin was sent to my online bitcoin wallet. No questions asked.
I expected a dodgy technologically savvy gangster or a geeky kid. The man I met seemed neither. He was preppy and fit—possibly an athlete—in his late twenties or early thirties. I imagined him working in a bank or in a white-collar semi-managerial position. He finalized the transaction from his iPhone and provided me with a secret code that confirmed that .36 of a bitcoin was sent to my online bitcoin wallet. No questions asked.
The Digital Underground
I purchased two lists of “working underground links,” to compare them with my post-August 4th list. One list was never delivered. Perhaps I spooked that vendor by providing my non-anonymous email. No big loss—it wasn’t too expensive, and the money in escrow will be refunded if the list isn’t delivered (assuming the site isn’t shut down by the DEA before my money is refunded).
The other list I purchased provided about 100 links, all of which worked. I was familiar with about a 1/4 of the sites. (That vendor even went as far as to claim that he only included actual and dependable services.)
The new list contained pretty much what I ‘d expect from the dark web—all manner of illicit products and services, from the purely chemical to the truly bizarre. Here’s a snapshot view of some of the odder offerings I’ve found while surfing the hidden web:
1. SWF, 30s, ISO Kidnapper.
On a forum called BlackHat BackMarket Data Board, someone claiming to be a white woman in her early thirties placed an ad seeking a “psychopath” to abduct her. She further elaborates that she is “strong-willed” and “fairly bright” but nevertheless wants to be abducted by someone who will put her into “sexual slavery” and attempt to induce Stockholm syndrome in her.
Many questions arise. Is this nothing more than a simple bondage fantasy (for hire) between consenting adults? And what of the ad’s strange caveat, that any attempt to use her forum post as a legal defense will be “impossible”?
Defensible or not, what’s certain is that such forums are havens for anti-social personalities, and the possibility of finding a willing psychopath is real. Perhaps the psycho-seeker isn’t worried about the dangers. But I wonder: How can would-be-abductors know that “her” post isn’t a set-up to kidnap someone else entirely?
2. Wanted: Superdollars
On a site called BlackMarket Reloaded, a user named Torrunner sells counterfeit U.S. bills for around 25% of their face value. (Torrunner recommends that new purchasers also buy a publication called “The Guide for Passing $100 Counterfeits.”) More than sixty buyers have left mostly positive feedback on Torrunner’s counterfeits.
Another website, called USJUD, sells $20 counterfeits “made in Asia,” which they claim are the very same as those dubbed by the U.S. government as “superdollars.” USJUD not only lists the positive qualities of their fakes, such as possessing a security strip and passing the pen test, but also describes weaknesses, such as generally not passing the infrared test and possessing a limited range of serial numbers.
3. Virtual Arms Dealers
For $2,500 an anonymous buyer can purchase a fully automatic AK-47. Though many “hidden services” are likely scams, sites like BlackMarket Reloaded—where this particular AK-47 is for sale—hold payment in escrow until the purchaser confirms possession of the product. In this case, the seller doesn’t have any feedback on the item. But as a vendor, he has three positive ratings, and the only items he has for sale are weapons.
For $2,500 an anonymous buyer can purchase a fully automatic AK-47.
4. Hackers for Hire
On a forum called HackBB, a user named Nuclear posts that he wants to hire a hacker to break into the University of Houston system and add a person as “graduated this fall semester.” Another user named Maddog responds, “PM me.”
On various forums, hackers offer up services ranging from cracking emails and Facebook accounts to launching denial of service attacks against websites.
The ability to buy hacked PayPay accounts, credit card accounts, and eBay accounts for pennies on the dollar is well known in the anonymous dark-web. Some vendors offer to sell accounts on escrow and guarantee that a certain percentage of accounts will be active.
5. “Command-Option- M” for Murder
Several hidden sites advertise contract killings. The average price is $10,000.
I’m skeptical. The likelihood that these posters are wannabe kids or fraudsters seems high. However, wannabes can sometimes cross the line and become the real thing.
More unnerving is the fact that there are people in this world who will kill for money, and there are certainly people who would pay for it. Though Tor isn’t invulnerable, The Onion Router has utility for electronic counter-surveillance if used with other techniques. A real or would-be hit man could very well use the technology to advertise his or her services.
Needless to say, there is no ethical way to test the willingness of such advertisers to follow through.
While the characters behind it are difficult to gauge, sites like Silk Road are, in a sense, reputable…or at least, reliable. Earlier this year, journalist Andy Greenburg of Forbes purchased small quantities of marijuana from three sites: Silk Road, Atlantis, and BlackMarket Reloaded. Of the three purchases he made, only one order failed to arrive. (He does point out that that one package could have easily been confiscated by customs because it was coming from Holland.)
While Andy purchased marijuana, the product could just as easily have been heroin or meth. What’s more, sites like Silk Road and BlackMarket Reloaded allow buyers to purchase with a certain degree of trust, because of the escrow system and feedback history.
Reputable with buyers and globally accessible, such sites seem to herald the new face of organized crime.
UPDATE—Since we posted this article, this happened…THE NEXT DAY: End of the Silk Road: FBI Says It’s Busted the Web’s Biggest Anonymous Black Market
About the author:
Kevin Goodman is a freelance researcher and writer. He has a master’s degree from Skidmore College with a focus in cognition, culture, and communication. He also has a graduate certificate in criminology from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
His primary academic interest is the psychology of belief and its interrelationship with deception. Kevin enjoys making wine, being outdoors and exploring whatever he finds curious. He lives near Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife and two daughters.