There are a lot of misconceptions about the dark web online and in popular media. When most people refer to the dark web, they are thinking about dark web/darknet marketplaces (DNMs). Many other services (good and bad) exist on the dark web.
The Silk Road was the first popular DNM which appeared on the scene in back in 2011. Many other DNMs have sprung up since selling drugs, stolen merchandise, stolen information, and more.
In this guide, you will learn the basics of DNMs, including how they're accessed, how they work, and the risks associated with using them. If you're interested in learning about the dark web in general, please see the dark web guide.
Are you suffering from drug addiction? There are treatment options. Believe it or not, life can be quite peachy without drugs.
Before we continue, here are some terms you should familiarize yourself with.
The dark web or darknet is a computer network that uses encryption and randomized relay systems to mask a user's identity, IP address, and browsing history.
The clearnet is the regular internet you're used to using, where network traffic origins are fairly easy to pinpoint.
The Onion Project, or TOR is the predominant anonymous computer network. Basically, TOR is the dark web. It's the tech that hides your identity online. It works kind of like a VPN, but instead of routing your traffic through one remote server, it routes it through many random servers across the globe.
TOR Browser is a free, modified version of the Firefox web browser configured to connect to the TOR network. It allows you to visit websites on the dark web. You may also use it to access the regular internet more anonymously.
The .onion top-level domain (TLD) name is the dark web's version of ".com" or ".net". Any site that ends with .onion can only be accessed through TOR. Unlike traditional TLDs, servers using the onion TLD are more difficult to locate. This makes it more difficult for authorities to locate and take down these sites.
How DNMs Operate
DNMs function similarly to something like eBay or Amazon. Sellers join the marketplace. They list their products or open an online "store". Then, users buy the products and the owners of the marketplace charge the sellers' fees for using the service. Some may operate slightly differently, but that's the general idea.
Functionally, accessing DNMs and using them requires quite a few extra steps to protect the anonymity of the buyers, sellers, and server admins. To get into DNMs, you'll likely have to figure out the basics of things like PGP encrypted messages and using the TOR browser.
Lifecycle of a DNM
DNMs follow similar lifecycles. Most of them don't last more than a few months, though some survive for several years. They're always eventually shut down by the authorities or the site owners.
DNMs may start when a single person, or a small group of people, decide to build one. This requires a considerable amount of technical experience, business skills, communication skills, and a questionable set of moral values.
To avoid immediate shutdown, the servers hosting DNMs must be in countries with lax legal regulations. The companies agreeing to host DNMs are equally shady. This means the server admins must pay significantly higher hosting fees than they would on the clearnet, for less reliable service.
Once the website is coded, the policies created, the admins ready, and the hosting secured, the site goes live on the TOR network. The site admins must market the DNM, usually on dark web forums. First, they must establish reliable sellers. Buyers won't come to the site if there's nothing to buy, and sellers won't come to the site if there's no one to buy their products. Server admins will have to either make special agreements to get initial sellers on board, or supply products themselves to get things started.
As the DNM builds a small pool of users and sellers, it will snowball into a lucrative operation IF the service remains reliable and secure. This can be incredibly challenging. Besides ever increasing hosting costs, the site will have to contend with authorities, attacks from hackers, and the occasional disgruntled market administrator.
It's incredibly common for darknet marketplaces to be held for ransom by hackers or attackers. These attacks usually involve DDOSing (overloading) the service and demanding a crypto payment from the site admins to stop the attack.
DNMs have a limited life and may be shutdown suddenly, leaving users with unfulfilled orders and sellers with no means of communication.
Here are some of the reasons DNMs shut down:
- Arrest or Authority Intervention:
- The authorities may succumb to international pressures if a DNM is large enough. They can raid servers and physically shut down DNMs.
- If discovered, admins of DNMs can be arrested. Leading to a sudden shutdown of the service. Arrests for running DNMs are becoming increasingly common. Law enforcement is better at tracing activities online, even with all the anonymity of the TOR network.
- Some DNMs have permanently shut down citing ransoms as being too much. These attackers may regularly ask for hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars from the site admins. At some point, the admins simply give up as it's not worth the time and effort dealing with these attacks.
- The Exit Scam Strategy
- DNMs may shut down permanently as a calculated move. It may be a decision of the admins taken in consideration with the above factors.
- Some marketplaces store funds in escrow. The buyer pays the money to the marketplace, the marketplace holds the money until the user receives their product. Then the marketplace takes their cut and releases the remainder to the vendor. If a market is popular enough, hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars could be held in escrow at once. The admins simply cash in their chips, shut down the servers, and take all the money in escrow.
- The strategy of winding down operations and keeping any remaining crypto stored on the site is known as "exit scamming"
A Brief History of DNMs
- 2008 - Bitcoin Invented
- Cryptographers were experimenting with crypto-like projects since the 1990s, but Bitcoin is credited as being the first mainstream cryptocurrency.
- Its creation is credited to Satoshi Nakamoto, though this is a pseudonym. The actual identity of the creator or creators remains unknown. It was released after its creation in 2009.
- Bitcoin and its many children are not inherently responsible for DNMs and may have some degree of legitimate purpose, but they certainly made participating in DNMs much easier.
- Silk Road (2011 - 2013)
- Ross Ulbricht is the creator of the Silk Road marketplace. Prior to his arrest, he was a student of engineering and held an MS from the prestigious Pennsylvania State University.
- He operated the site under the pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts"
- The Silk Road was the first darknet marketplace of its kind operating on the TOR network, supporting crypto based payment systems and vendor feedback.
- He initially marketed his site in an online forum. The first product being sold were hallucinogenic mushrooms, supplied by himself.
- The site rapidly attracted online sellers and buyers.
- Ross's identity was discovered by an FBI agent who managed to trace his identity back to the original forum post where Ross first mentioned the website. This led to his arrest in 2013 and the termination of Silk Road. Ross was charged with crimes related to money laundering, narcotics, and running a criminal enterprise. Additionally, he is alleged to have participated in a murder-for-hire plot in which he targeted ongoing threats to his enterprise (he was, however, being scammed by the wouldbe assassins). Ross currently remains in prison in the US, serving a life sentence.
- Silk Road 2.0 (2013-2014)
- A second silk road, operated by different administrators but with much of the same user base and vendors, sprung up promptly when the original Silk Road went down.
- Blake Benthall, the credited owner and a key operator of the Silk Road 2, was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Over the past decade, countless DNMs have come and gone. Many of these markets operate internationally, and some have certain specialties.
Despite their bad rap, most DNMs have a moral code of sorts, banning things like weapons and child exploitation.
A Timeline of Major DNMs
The first major DNM was launched in 2011 and ramained popular until the owners arrest in 2013.
A spiritual successor sprung up.
This English-language DNM sold drugs, data, and counterfeit items.
Another English DNM. At its peak, was the largest DNM in history. Shut down in 2017 due to law enforcement action. Reopened in 2021 but it's pretty spotty.
Hydra was a major Russian-language market with upwards of 17m customers. It lasted an impressive 7 years.
Hydra was a major Russian-language market with upwards of 17m customers. It lasted an impressive 7 years.
Dream market lasted until 2019. Some vendors were arrested, but its owners remain unknown.
This highly popular English-language market sold all varieties of narcotics. They pulled off a huge exit scam in 2020.
This was the market to go to after Empire shut down.
This market specialized in selling marijuana related products and magic mushrooms, with no "hard drugs" for sale.
ASAP market is a minimilaistic market offering many narcotics and counterfeit items. It's the largest operating market currently up.
Users must start by downloading the TOR Browser. Then they'll have to find a link to a darknet marketplace. I won't provide direct links here, but they can be found easily with Google or on Reddit. Services like dark.fail aggregate links for "research purposes."
Note that loading sites with TOR takes considerably longer than on the clearnet. It may take anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes for a page to load, depending on network and site demand.
Once a link to a DNM has been located, the user must copy/paste it into their Tor browser and go to it. Exact procedures vary from site to site, but usually the user must:
- Complete a challenge / not a robot type thing
- These are exceedingly difficult on DNMs to prevent attacks/ransomes
- Read site policies
- Register an account
- Set up some type of PGP encryption key pair
The exact order process may vary from site to site. But in general, there are two pathways.
The Escrow Process
The DNM may hold funds in escrow until the seller ships the product or the user reports it as received. Though not all marketplaces use this method.
The steps are usually something like this:
- The user registers an account on the DNM if they don't have one
- The user sends a specified amount of crypto currency to a specific provided wallet address held by the marketplace. This amount is added to their account balance. Now, the user basically has gift card credit for illegal items.
- The user locates a product and creates an order
- The user encrypts their shipping address using PGP and the seller's public key. The user provides this PGP-encrypted message to the seller (see PGP guide)
- The amount is subtracted from the user's balance and the details are released to the seller.
- The seller decrypts the shipping information and ships the product. Usually using USPS if in USA.
- Upon receipt of the product, or after a specified amount of time (assuming there's no contest), the funds are released to the seller. Buyers submit feedback or reviews of the seller, just as you might on Amazon or eBay.
The Direct Payment Process
Ordering and shipping is similar, but rather than adding funds to a marketplace wallet or account balance, the user pays the seller directly. The seller later pays fees to the marketplace to keep their seller account in good standing.
- User account created
- User places order, provides encrypted shipping details
- User sends an exact amount of cryptocurrency to a specific crypto address
- Upon network confirmation, the order is accepted. The seller receives the information and ships the product.
- Upon receipt of the product, the user is expected to leave positive feedback/reviews to boost the seller's DNM profile.
Risks and Dangers
Buying illegal substances, stolen merchandise, and counterfit currency or goods online poses significant risks for both the buyer and the seller.
First, in the USA, it is a federal offense to use the USPS for any of these transactions. If the buyer or seller gets caught, there are significant legal ramifications.
More often than not, law enforcement is targeting the sellers more than the buyers. Still, it isn't unheard of for people to be arrested for buying drugs on DNMs.
Standard risks associated with any drugs apply. Almost all stimulants purchased on DNMs contain some amount of methamphetamine. Many DNMs sell "pressed pills" which are fake pills cut with more dangerous illegal substances. For example, a pill containing methamphetamine that looks like a prescription adderall pill.
While pressed pills are often made with vitamins, it's impossible to know that the additives are safe.
Any drug marketed as an opiate, be it pressed pills or heroin, may also contain amounts of tranquilizers or fentanyl.
Any of the health risks associated with standard street drugs apply to DNMs.
Are you thinking of buying drugs off the darknet? This is inadvisable. However, someone was to pursue this, here are some safety strategies.
- Go for a long walk and think about your life decisions.
- Purchase Drug Reagant Test Kits from sites like https://dancesafe.org or https://www.tnscientific.com to verify what you got. The fentanyl epidemic is ongoing and drugs being cut with the tranquilizer Xylazine is making things even more deadly.
- Research how to do this as safely as possible. There are many tips and tricks to avoid getting arrested or deaded.
- I consider saying out of jail harm reduction because they're not going to help you in prison. Here are some tips to avoid detection:
- Provide your real name and address to sellers. This may seem counterintuitive, but your packages are less likely to be deemed suspicious if you use your real information.
- Use PGP encryption every time. If a seller gets busted, there's a higher chance your information is safe. This isn't completely without risk, as many sellers don't care about protecting your personal information and can decrypt it then print it out anyways. Some sellers are in the unfortunate habit of saving all their buyers information unencrypted.
- Don't become a drug dealer. Don't use your newfound online connect to sling drugs to all your friends and acquaintances. This is an easy way to paint a target on your back.
- Only use Monero (XMR) to facilitate transactions. This is one of the few truly anonymous cryptocurrencies.
- Never transfer crypto directly from an exchange to a market. Use a non-market crypto wallet and buy outside of exchanges if possible.