Picture: 123RF/PWSTUDIO
Picture: 123RF/PWSTUDIO

Underground markets that sell illegal commodities like drugs, counterfeit currency and fake documentation tend to flourish during crises, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.

The online underground economy has responded to Covid-19 by exploiting demand for commodities related to the disease.

Today some of the most vibrant underground economies exist in darknet markets.

These are internet websites that look like ordinary e-commerce websites but are accessible only by using special browsers or authorisation codes. Vendors of illegal commodities have also formed dedicated group-chats and channels on encrypted instant messaging services like WhatsApp, Telegram and ICQ.

The Darknet Analysis project at the Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group at the Georgia State University collects data weekly from 60 underground darknet markets and forums. My colleagues Yubao Wu and Robert Harisson and I have analysed this data and found that three major types of Covid-19 offerings have emerged on darknet markets since late February: protective gear, medications and services that help people commit fraud.

If it’s an in-demand Covid-19 commodity, chances are it’s available on darknet markets. Screenshot by David Maimon, CC BY-ND
If it’s an in-demand Covid-19 commodity, chances are it’s available on darknet markets. Screenshot by David Maimon, CC BY-ND

Using these darknet markets is risky business. There’s the built-in risk of becoming the victim of a scam or buying counterfeit products from underground vendors. There are also health and legal risks. Inadvertently buying ineffective Covid-19 protective gear and dangerous remedies from unregulated sellers could physically harm buyers. And purchasing information and services with the aim of defrauding people and the government is a criminal offence that carries legal penalties.

Personal protective equipment

Several vendors have added protective gear, such as face masks, protective gowns, Covid-19 test kits, thermometers and hand sanitisers to their list of products for sale.

The effectiveness of this protective gear is questionable. Underground vendors typically do not disclose their products’ sources, leaving consumers with no way to judge the products.

Covid-19 protective gear is a common product type on darknet e-commerce sites. Screenshot by David Maimon, CC BY-ND
Covid-19 protective gear is a common product type on darknet e-commerce sites. Screenshot by David Maimon, CC BY-ND

An example of the uncertainties that surround the effectiveness of protective gear comes from one of the encrypted channel platforms in the first few days of the pandemic. Vendors on the channel offered face masks for sale. Demand for these masks was very high at that time and people around the world were scrambling to find some for personal use.

While governments and suppliers faced difficulties in meeting this demand, several vendors on these platforms posted ads offering large quantities of masks. One vendor even uploaded a video showing many boxes of face masks in storage.

Given the global shortage at the time, our research team found it difficult to understand how this vendor in Thailand could offer so many for sale. One disturbing possibility is that they sold used facemasks. And indeed, authorities in Thailand broke up an operation that washed, ironed and boxed used facemasks and supplied them to underground markets.

Treatments

Darknet vendors are also selling medications and cures – including effective treatments like remdesivir and ineffective treatments like hydroxychloroquine – and various purported Covid-19 antidotes and serums. Some vendors even offer to sell and ship oxygen ventilators.

Darknet markets offer ineffective and potentially dangerous Covid-19 therapies, including hydroxychloroquine, which studies have shown is not an effective treatment. Screenshot by David Maimon, CC BY-ND
Darknet markets offer ineffective and potentially dangerous Covid-19 therapies, including hydroxychloroquine, which studies have shown is not an effective treatment. Screenshot by David Maimon, CC BY-ND

Using Covid-19 medications purchased on darknet platforms could be dangerous. Uncertainties about the true identity of medication manufacturers and the ingredients of other cures leave patients vulnerable to a wide array of potentially detrimental side effects.

DIY fraud

Government efforts to relieve the financial stress on individuals and businesses from the economic impact of the pandemic have led to a third category of products on these markets. We have observed many vendors offering to sell online fraud services that promise to improve customers’ financial circumstances during the crisis.

These vendors offer to either support customers in putting together fake websites that allow them to lure victims into disclosing their personal information, or simply provide stolen personal information.

The stolen information can be used to file for unemployment benefits or obtain loans. Some vendors go a step further and offer support in the fraudulent benefits application process.

Covid-19-related fraud could have grave consequences for people whose identities have been stolen and used to apply for government benefits or loans, including the loss of future government assistance and damage to credit scores. Fraudulent requests for Covid-19 relief funds filed by using stolen personal information also puts additional strain on federal, state and local governments.

Digging up the data

The size of the online illicit market of Covid-19 essentials is unknown. We aim to collect enough data to provide an empirical assessment of this economy.

There are several challenges to understanding its scope, including the difficulty of measuring the magnitude of the demand, the extent of the supply that meets that demand and the impact on the legitimate market.

The unknown validity of darknet customers’ and vendors’ reports about the products they bought and sold also makes assessment difficult.

Our systematic research approach should allow us to overcome these issues and collect this data, which could reveal how online underground markets adjust to a worldwide health crisis. This information, in turn, could help authorities develop strategies for disrupting their activities.

*Maimon is associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia State University. This article was first published on The Conversation Africa

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