Dark web markets dealing in the illicit sale of drugs, counterfeit goods, and cybercriminal wares have been known to thrive in crises, with the COVID-19 pandemic being one of the periods of success in the hidden web.
Today, a host of darknet marketplaces have been observed to respond to the global coronavirus public health crisis as vendors move in to exploit the widespread fear accompanying the uncertain economic times.
In typical dark web monitoring fashion, researchers from the Georgia State University conducted a Darknet Analysis Project at the institution’s Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group to study effects of COVID-19 on the dark web economy. The study was conducted through the weekly collection of data from 60 darknet marketplaces and forums.
Limitations and Findings of the Study
According to the research findings, the dark web economy’s crisis adaptation has led to the emergence of three categories of coronavirus-related offerings of goods and services: personal protective equipment, COVID-19 drugs and services linked to fraud schemes.
Importantly, the study participants noted the risky nature of monitoring the dark web during the pandemic. First, the obvious risk of falling victim to the darknet’s sketchy ways was considered as researchers would probably end up buying fake stuff from vendors.
The second consideration was the health and risks associated with purchasing questionable COVID-19 protective equipment and dangerous medicines from unscrupulous vendors thus causing possible harm to buyers.
The third limitation touched on the legal ramifications of sourcing illicit services from the dark web marketplaces. Various legislations outlaw the purchase of information of services intended to defraud people or governments.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Several vendors were found to be advertising the sale of coronavirus kits such as face masks, protective clothing, COVID-19 test products, thermometers and hand sanitizers.
The researchers noted the question nature of these items considering that darknet sellers are known to hide the sources of their wares leaving no room for quality assessment of advertised goods.
An important observation that was made was the mass availability of the facemasks across the dark web markets even in the face of a global shortage of the items. The large quantities of masks offered for sale raised questions about the sources of the goods as governments and suppliers suffered serious shortages.
A similar scan conducted by Digital Shadows found that a large number of face masks being advertised on Empire Market, with one listing offering 2,000 boxes of surgical masks in exchange for $6,500.
The research team discovered the existence of dark web vendor that were selling medicines and cures purported to treat coronavirus, including drugs like Remdesivir and Hydroxychloroquine.
In addition, a host of sellers were advertising the sale of questionable COVID-19 antidotes and serums with no backing of medical efficiency. Some vendors went as far as promising darknet shoppers that they would sell and ship functional oxygen ventilators on demand.
The researchers reflected on the risky circumstances surrounding the sale of purported coronavirus medications amid a raging public health crisis. The dangers posed to potential buyers are limitless as the verification of these drugs is non-existent, and would thus pose serious side effects to target users.
Online Fraud Services
The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by serious economic effects affecting people from all walks of like. Even as governments have been striving to relieve some of the financial stresses sustained by populations they administer, darknet fraudsters have been striving to exploit a rather vulnerable population.
The researchers found a significantly high number of adverts concerning the sale of online fraud services by vendors promising to help buyers earn money amid the global recession, including help with creating fake sites, and lobbying fake requests for COVID-19 relief funds.