Proponents of dark web marketplaces argue that hidden websites which facilitate the sale of illegal goods and services are run by libertarian idealists who have revolutionised the drugs market, making it safer for buyers to pick up their substance of choice without running the risks involved in scoring off a dodgy dealer down a dark back alley. Supporters of the sites also point to the fact that their eBay-style feedback systems have led to an increase in the purity of drugs, as online sellers compete for custom.
By buying their gear from dark web marketplaces, so the argument goes, narcotics enthusiasts are less likely to be ripped off, sold dodgy drugs or arrested while scoring. All they need to do is acquire some virtual currency and equip themselves with the rudimentary technical knowledge required to access the dark web. They can then navigate to their preferred hidden website and browse its listings. All of this can be done from the comfort of their own home, to which their drugs can be delivered in discreet packaging a few days after their order has been placed.
Unfortunately though, that’s not always how things work out. Whether or not buying drugs from dark web marketplaces is safer than using a street dealer is open to debate, but the very nature of the goods and services sold on these sites means there will always be a fairly large element of risk involved in handing money over to them. Anybody tempted by the security dark web marketplaces appear to offer should consider the potential dangers before using them, as there won’t be a customer service department to complain to if things go wrong.
Speaking with WIRED in January last year, Berkeley computer science researcher Nick Weaver, who has studied dark web marketplaces, said hidden site admins have learned that if they develop a trustworthy reputation, it will only be a matter of time before they are targeted by police. This is likely one of the reasons that dark web marketplace owners have a tendency to pull exit scams, which involve closing sites down without warning and making off with all the virtual currency held in customers’ accounts. Only last week, AlphaBay mysteriously disappeared from the dark web, prompting users to speculate its administrators may have pulled an exit scam. The site remains offline, despite two people claiming to be AlphaBay administrators taking to message boards to claim it is merely down for maintenance.
The disappearance of AlphaBay followed an apparent exit scam executed by the owners of the Outlaw dark web marketplace in May this year, and the sudden demise of the Evolution Marketplace in 2015. The owners of Evolution are thought to have made off with $12 million (€10.5 million) of their customers’ virtual cash. AlphaBay, one of the largest dark web marketplaces to appear in the wake of the closure of the original Silk Road in 2013, is said to have processed as much as $800,000 on a daily basis, and would likely have held significant amounts of money in its customers’ accounts.
Risk of arrest
While law enforcement agencies that focus on dark web marketplaces spend the majority of their time targeting site administrators and major dealers who use hidden sites, some have turned their attention to buyers. In November last year, it was revealed that a coalition of police forces around the world had launched a crackdown on people who buy drugs from dark web marketplaces. Operation Hyperion saw law enforcement agencies in countries including Sweden, New Zealand and Canada make a number of arrests and speak with scores of individuals who had purchased drugs from hidden sites. Police in Australia this week warned dark web marketplace users they will be arrested and prosecuted if they are found to have ordered illegal substances online, noting that some of those who do so seem to be unaware they are doing anything illegal.
Dark web marketplace customers could also come undone if customs officers or postal workers discover their illicit packages before they are delivered. While hidden website users told BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat programme in January they are 99% certain to receive drugs they order through dark web marketplaces, law enforcement agencies are stepping up efforts to intercept packages sent by online dealers. In its 2014 National Strategic Assessment, the UK’s National Crime Agency warned that Britain’s postal service was being used to send a large proportion of drugs that are imported into the UK, prompting calls for closer cooperation between police and parcel firms.
Quality and purity
Drug users take a risk every time they indulge in their preferred substance, even when buying from trusted sources. This applies equally to drugs bought on the dark web as it does to those picked up from street dealers. Feedback and comments left on dark web vendors’ profiles will be no guarantee the substances they sell won’t be cut with all manner of unpleasant bulking agents that could make users ill or even kill. Meanwhile, the availability of emerging drugs such as new psychoactive substances and synthetic opioids on the dark web has been increasing in recent years, raising concerns that users may overdose on drugs they know little about. Non-fatal overdoes and deaths linked to substances such as fentanyl have been on the rise in North America and Europe in recent years, at the same time as their presence on the dark web has increased.
The fact that the purity of more traditional substances has increased thanks to the competition created by dark web marketplaces can also be a danger. Evidence suggests that the potency of drugs such as MDMA and cocaine has risen in recent years, thanks in part to the market pressures created by hidden websites. While this might be seen as a boon for some users, purer drugs can have devastating effects when users are unaware of the potency of the substances they are consuming. On balance, anybody thinking of buying drugs from the dark web might come to the conclusion that doing so will be just as risky as scoring on a street corner or nightclub toilet.