Close this search box.

Dark web marketplaces explained

The dark web may sell some strange things, but much of its commerce takes place on marketplaces.

In our latest European Marketplaces report, we spotlight the role of marketplaces within the curious world of the dark web.

Digital editor, Scarlette Isaac, looks closely at what we discovered.

A journey to the darkside

The dark web, that shadowy world of illicit content that uses the structure of the internet as we know it, but which can only be accessed by special software, computer configurations or authorisations, isn’t just a hotbed of conspiracy theories it also hosts a thriving ecommerce market – and marketplaces are just as popular there as they are out in the light. Dark web marketplaces (DWMs), like all things digital, saw a growth spike during the pandemic as more users turned to the web to buy things, in this case quasi-legal and illegal. Most simply facilitate linkage of buyers and sellers, so are in fact pure marketplaces, while others have started to also sell their own items, as mixed marketplaces. Most sell drugs – both ‘legal’ and illegal – as well as weapons, while most trade in stolen data, typically card data, as well as fake IDs. Almost all take payment in Bitcoin, although some take payments in a range of cryptocurrencies.

What is it worth?

Figures for how many DWMs there are and what sort of level of business they do is, unsurprisingly, hard to come by. An academic study published in 2020 identified 38 dark marketplaces, including Silk Road, White House Market, Corona Market, Dark0de Reborn and Invictus Market. There are many more and the list churns as authorities around the world close some down, others are launched or relaunched. The study also quotes ‘European authorities’ that estimated that, between 2011 and 2015, drug sales on DWMs hit $44m per year. A subsequent study estimated that, in early 2016, DWM drug sales had grown to between $170m and $300m per year. Recently, an Italian DWM called Berlusconi – known mostly for selling stolen IDs – was seized by the Italian police who estimated its annual transactions at €2m euros. Another DWM, Darkmarket, that was taken down by Europol in January 2021 also sheds some light on the level of business that is seen in the dark web. According to the police, Darkmarket had around 500,000 users, creating around 320,000 transactions with 2400 sellers – mostly using Bitcoin.

Getting on the dark web

The dark web and all sites thereon, including DWMs, exist as an overlay network on top of the traditional internet. These sites, known collectively as ‘hidden services’ require special browsers to access them. The most common is Tor, a free, open source browser technology that allows anonymous browsing of the dark web. Users download Tor to host relays or nodes that help them access ‘onion’ services, which are sites that are configured to only work with Tor. Onion services are listed with .onion URLs that include an opaque string of characters in the address. For example, one URL of the Silk Road marketplace, a defunct black market and the most famous dark web site, was silkroad7rn2puhj[.]onion.

How DWMs operate

Aside from the illicit nature of the products on offer and the browser technology used to access these sites, DWMs actually operate as an analogue of mainstream marketplaces. Vendors advertise their products on the site, which delivers them an audience. Customers choose what they want, pay for it and the vendor typically sorts delivery. The marketplace holds onto the money until the consumer receives the merchandise, then releases the funds to the seller. Customers also leave reviews, which are a strong part of building a brand reputation as it would be in the light world. The DWM ‘industry’ is supported by search engines and news websites such as Grams, DeepDotWeb and darknetlive, which aggregate information on all active dark marketplaces. DWMs are also subject to scams and frauds and more and more of them are using escrow services to hold the buyers’ cash while awaiting delivery, much as mainstream marketplaces do. This evolution of DWMs to be more like those in the ‘real’ world is significant. It marks a maturity in the market that has changed from being something that was very much niche among cyberpunks and those with the technical know how to run dark web browsers such as Onion and Tor, to now being something that is much more mainstream, rife with scams and misinformation. The biggest growth sector in DWM selling is in hacked or stolen data, which in turn is driving growth in the hacking of mainstream websites and business systems – which is pretty much the only place that DWMs impinge on the mainstream.

This article was originally featured in the European Marketplaces 2021 report. Download the full report here and learn more about the wider European marketplace landscape, including the consumer experience, latest trends and new marketplace models.

Read More

Register for Newsletter

Group 4 Copy 3Created with Sketch.

Receive 3 newsletters per week

Group 3Created with Sketch.

Gain access to all Top500 research

Group 4Created with Sketch.

Personalise your experience on