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The darknet – a wild west for fake coronavirus ‘cures ‘? The truth is more complicated (and regulated)
The coronavirus pandemic has spawned reports of unregulated health products and fake cures being sold on the dark web. These include black market PPE, illicit medications including the widely touted “miracle” drug chloroquine, and fake COVID-19 “cures” including blood supposedly from recovered coronavirus patients.
These dealings have once more focused public attention on this little-understood part of the internet. Nearly 10 years because it started being applied to a substantial scale, the dark web remains a lucrative safe haven for traders in a variety of illegal goods and services, especially illicit drugs.
Black market trading on the dark web is carried out primarily through darknet marketplaces or cryptomarkets. They are anonymised trading platforms that directly connect buyers and sellers of a selection of illegal goods and services – much like legitimate trading websites such as eBay.
So just how do darknet marketplaces work? And simply how much illegal trading of COVID-19-related products is happening via these online spaces?
Not a free-for-all
There are currently more than a dozen darknet marketplaces in operation. Protected by powerful encryption technology, authorities around the globe have largely didn’t contain their growth. A steadily increasing proportion of illicit drug users around the globe report sourcing their drugs online. In Australia, we have one of the world’s highest concentrations of darknet drug vendors per capita.
Despite popular belief, cryptomarkets are not the “lawless spaces” they’re often presented as in the news. Market prohibitions exist on all mainstream cryptomarkets. Universally prohibited goods and services include: hitman services, trafficked human organs and snuff movies.
Although cryptomarkets lie beyond your realm of state regulation, each one of these is established and maintained by a main administrator who, along with employees or associates, is in charge of the market’s security, dispute resolution between buyers and sellers, and the charging of commissions on transactions.
Administrators will also be ultimately responsible for determining exactly what do and can’t be sold on the cryptomarket. These decisions tend informed by:
the attitudes of the surrounding community comprising buyers and sellers
the extent of consumer demand and supply for several products
the revenues a website makes from commissions charged on transactions
and the perceived “heat” that may be attracted from police force in the trading of particularly dangerous illegal goods and services.
Experts delve into the dark web
A report from the Australian National University published last week talks about several hundred coronavirus-related products for sale across several cryptomarkets, including supposed vaccines and antidotes.
While the research confirms some unscrupulous dark web traders are indeed exploiting the pandemic and seeking to defraud naïve customers, these records ought to be contextualised with several important caveats.
Firstly, how many dodgy covid-related products on the darkode market – https://www.geloraart.com/ads/why-ignoring-world-market-will-cost-you-sales/ on the dark web is relatively small. According to this research, they account for about 0.2% of all listed items. The overwhelming most products were those we are already familiar with – particularly illicit drugs such as for instance cannabis and MDMA.
Also, while the analysis dedicated to products listed available, these are likely listings for products that either do no exist or are listed with the precise intention to defraud a customer.
Thus, the specific sale of fake coronavirus “cures” on the dark web is likely minimal, at best.
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