There have always been regions, routes, or areas that have been used for the trade in goods that were or are extremely difficult or even impossible to obtain by legal means.
In the digital world, especially on the dark web, there were and still are many black marketplaces, such as Silk Road, where fraudsters trade mainly in illegal goods — especially user data, which cybercriminals pay a high price for.
Read on to learn how Silk Road and other dark-web black markets work. We also have a tip for you on how to get alerted if your data is found on the dark web — and how you can get help in the event of identity theft with Avira Identity Assistant.
What is the Silk Road on the dark web?
The term Silk Road harks back to the famous trade route of yesteryear when, from the 2nd century BCE right through to the 14th century, traders brought valuable goods (such as silk, which is where the Silk Road gets its name from) on camels from China to Rome and Venice via this arduous and very dangerous overland route.
The Silk Road on the dark web is a virtual black market founded in 2011 as a (hidden)x service on the Tor network where drugs, weapons, user data, and other illegal goods were traded. To protect the anonymity of traders and buyers, the only accepted payment method was the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.
How does the Silk Road work?
Think of Silk Road as sort of like Amazon or eBay—only that this online marketplace, founded in 2011, was on the dark web. Silk Road looked professional and had a slick user interface, even going as far as to provide every user account with a wallet with several Bitcoin addresses — the only payment means. When a purchase was completed, the corresponding amount was transferred directly to the trader. This completed the transaction for the buyer, and goods or services — which were primarily illegal — were supplied more or less immediately.
Customers who purchased something on Silk Road could leave feedback in the form of reviews and ratings about the goods they had bought. They could also rely on a ticket-based support team to respond quickly to problems — presumably mostly cases of fraud — who did their best to find solutions. There was even an official community forum.
Every user of the Silk Road trading platform had to adhere to strict anonymity rules and — even back then — log in using two-factor authentication (2FA). That’s because everyone knew that law enforcement agencies could pounce at any moment.
Is Silk Road still going or has it been shut down?
After the original Silk Road platform on the dark web was shut down after two and a half years and the operators arrested once they’d been identified, a different operator reopened the online black market just one month later under the name of Silk Road 2.0 with significantly tighter security precautions — although it was finally shut down in November 2014.
Up to that point, Silk Road had handled the equivalent of $1.2 billion in transactions, generating an estimated $80 million in commission for Silk Road — making it an extremely lucrative platform.
Silk Road is considered a blueprint for illegal marketplaces on the dark web
Just as cybercriminals are always finding new ways to offer goods via the dark web, there is also a steady stream of customers who are only too happy to purchase their wares — be that drugs, narcotics, medication, weapons, or even user data that’s just perfect for large-scale cyberattacks. The range of goods and services on offer is staggering.
Even though Silk Road was eventually shut down and its operators were sentenced to often long prison sentences, this doesn’t mean that put the stop to marketplaces for illegal goods on the dark web.
Nevertheless, Silk Road is considered a blueprint, so to speak, for countless other trading venues on the dark web that have emerged since then, been uncovered by law enforcement agencies, and shut down or quickly closed again for other reasons.
What is currently the largest marketplace on the dark web?
Whether the FBI, Europol, the NCA, or other law enforcement agencies: They are now all working together internationally to uncover shady dealings on the dark web, shut down illegal marketplaces, and hold the operators to account.
However, experts believe that for every marketplace that’s closed down, at least five new ones pop up. And the range of listings is and remains considerable, with illegal goods likely to be the most hotly traded items.
Dark-web marketplaces are extremely volatile, and no matter how attractive or exciting these trading venues may be, Silk Road’s successors that have popped up and shut down since serve as a good indication that you tend to tread on the wrong side of the law on the dark web.
As recently as March 2023, the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), together with Germany’s Central Office for the Fight against Cybercrime (ZIT), announced that ChipMixer, potentially the world’s largest money laundering service on the dark web, had been taken down.
The investigators took 120 people into custody and were able to seize Bitcoin worth the equivalent of €44 million.
Genesis, a dark-web marketplace which, among other things, had 80 million sets of stolen credentials up for sale, was finally shut down thanks to a coordinated, global operation called Cookie Monster, as the BBC reported in April 2023.
Another coordinated global investigation against a large dark-web marketplace for trafficking in narcotics saw 288 suspects arrested.
As Europol reported, Monopoly Market was being used to either sell or buy drugs. Almost €51 million in cash and cryptocurrencies were seized along with 850 kilograms (almost one ton) of drugs such as MDMA, cocaine, and amphetamines, plus 117 firearms.
When the law enforcement agencies gained access in 2023, they not only gathered intel on the operators but also seized a large amount of customer data — with those people also facing prosecution.
AlphaBay went online in December 2013 to much notoriety. Until the US Department of Justice shut it down in 2017, this dark-web marketplace primarily traded in counterfeit and digital goods as well as illegal drugs, prescription medication, and weapons. In addition to Bitcoin, Monero was also accepted as a means of payment.
In August 2021, one of the former administrators confirmed that he was going to relaunch the platform with new features. One of these was apparently designed to prevent users from losing their funds even if all the servers were seized simultaneously.
More than a year after its reopening, various sources consider AlphaBay to be “one of the best, if not the best illegal dark-web marketplace,” as reported by the US magazine Wired. With over 37,000 listings (around 90 percent of which are drugs) and around 12,000 sellers, the operators have succeeded in attracting around 885,000 buyers.
Versus Market is considered one of the largest general-purpose marketplaces on the dark web. There, you will not only find the typical selection of drugs but also a variety of other products such as counterfeit branded items, jewelry and gold, software, and much more.
The market has a phishing protection system that always displays information you can check to make sure you’re not on a phishing site.
Close-to-home reasons for shutting down dark-web marketplaces
In addition to being shut down by law enforcement agencies, there are other reasons why dark-web marketplaces sometimes suddenly disappear clean off the scene.
- Cyberattacks by cybercriminals: The illegal dark web-marketplace TheRealDeal, through which malicious code was traded, was itself the target of a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack.
- Exit scam: This probably isn’t an isolated case, but the operators of the dark-web marketplace Evolution made off with users’ Bitcoins, which they had deposited there, worth around $12 million.
- Internal conflict: Disputes between traders and moderators on the dark-web trading platform Nucleus in 2016 led to the operators quickly shutting down their market. Once again, users were left literally having to suck it up because they could no longer access the Bitcoins they had stored in their wallets.
Prosecution of dark-web marketplace participants
Rather than pursuing consumers or small traders, the primary focus of law enforcement agencies is catching the operators of the dark-web marketplaces with illegal listings and their bulk buyers and major traders.
Nevertheless, you should be aware that the boundaries are fluid and when you purchase services, products, or other goods via dark-web marketplaces, you are moving in a gray area — and can quickly find yourself in the investigators’ cross hairs.
Despite claims of legitimacy, most dark-web marketplaces are still rife with shady characters, fraud, and volatility — and a breeding ground for all kinds of cyberattack. After all, where else can cybercriminals so easily get hold of whatever malware code or user data they want, which they can then use to perform grievous acts against supply systems and company or government websites — and also us as private individuals?
Protect your online identity
With just a few personal details, cybercriminals can impersonate you and act on your behalf — and even open bank accounts.
Given the examples we’ve mentioned of dangerous dark-web marketplaces where cybercriminals trade in stolen customer data, you’re probably aware of just how quickly your data can fall into the hands of those who have no right to it.
But do you know what to do if your identity has been stolen? Thankfully, help is at hand in the form of some really great solutions, like Avira Identity Assistant:
- If your identity has been stolen, you can contact this provider’s customer service team between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. CET, Monday to Friday. An identity restoration specialist will then call you back within 48 hours and walk you through all the steps to restore your identity. They’ll also advise you on how to resolve the identity theft issue with the relevant authorities (e.g. credit card companies).
- The Dark Web Monitoring feature built into Avira Identity Assistant (for customers in Germany only) uses advanced monitoring technology to continuously scan the dark web for the information you gave Avira to monitor, such as email addresses, phone numbers, gamer tags, and credit card numbers. You’ll then be emailed if your data has appeared on the dark web. You can then take immediate action to protect yourself, such as by changing your passwords or notifying your bank.