Along with innovative tactics, social networks and internet connected devices come completely new areas of digital real estate that redefine the boundaries of organized crime. From individual perpetrators to syndicated operations, criminals of every sort are cashing in on the online digital black market that delivers many upsides, one of which is the increasing obsolescence of drug-related violence.

In Los Angeles County, homicides fell 20% in 2017 as opioid overdose deaths rose, this would seem counter-intuitive given the historical accounts of territorial drug wars. Criminologists think they have identified the top reasons for this decoupling of the drug market and drug-related homicide rates on the streets; smartphones and access to online black markets.

Territorial disputes are reduced by mobile device GPS mapping and encrypted messaging that allows for dealing locations to constantly change as drug users dictate how and when narcotics are found, delivered and paid for.

Online avenues such as the Darknet, offer anonymity to both dealers and buyers as competitive landscapes are dominated by service, pricing, and cryptocurrency payment methods.

3 Web Levels and 1 Network of Online Black Markets

The regular “surface” web that most people are accustomed to is where the Google search engine, social networks, and even this blog reside. Yet this type of content represents only 4% of the data contained on the entire world wide web.

Beyond the reach of search engines is the Deep Web. So what’s down there?

A good example of a Deep Web internet experience would be a website that hosts multiple levels of pages sometimes behind a sign-up wall that is not necessarily scanned or indexed by search engine spiders.

At this level of regulated and monitored web content, illicit drug trafficking starts to take place. Certain e-commerce sites host discreet drug markets that users can access by searching for intentionally misspelled words like “fentanylll”. Drug-related results are often accompanied by dealer contact details that can include email addresses and even phone numbers.

For dealers and buyers wanting to completely retain anonymity and privacy, the third level down, known as the Dark Web, hosts data aggressively hidden from web browsers. Here, online black markets pop in and out of existence, as they draw the attention of cyber law enforcement and other regulatory agencies that constantly try to shut down illicit activities.

Dream market, a popular e-commerce site on the Dark Web, was analyzed and the findings showed that heroin comprised about 55% of opiate listings, followed by oxycodone at 11% and fentanyl at 5.5%.



US opioid dealers caught doing business on the Dark Web explain that they source fentanyl from China and use the US postal service to deliver the goods. This method is preferred as the US Postal Service has a policy of searching suspicious packages by hand which can lead to human oversight and ineffective screening of drug-filled packages.

Finally, there is the Darknet; a network that utilizes the web, and currently has around 50 cryptomarkets in operation. Inside this network, persistent drug buyers try to navigate past typical scamming operations to secure sellers that will deliver.

The Darknet is accessed using custom-configured software tools to engage in encrypted and illegal business transactions. Both business-to-business and business-to-consumer transactions occur there, often conducted with untraceable cryptocurrencies.

Nearly half of all bitcoin transactions occur on the Darknet as it is the most globally recognized of the cryptocurrencies. The most popular three are Bitcoin, Monero, and Litecoin.

What is being done to stop the online black market?

Even though the online black market is a constantly moving target for law enforcement, there have been a growing number of “wins” in terms of shutting down both the operations of drug smugglers and the methods of dealers. This has been accomplished by targeting the core digital channels of communication and delivery.

The Darknet marketplace termed “Silk Road”, was successfully taken down by the FBI in 2013 as well as it’s successor, AlphaBay in 2017. The defunct AlphaBay e-commerce site was host to multiple opioid dealers that sold to customers ordering drugs from the convenience of their computers or mobile phones.

As far as actual drug dealers, this year a US man and wife couple were caught selling fentanyl on several sites over the Dark Web and the Darknet. They were consequently labeled as “the most prolific dark net fentanyl vendor in the United States and the fourth most prolific in the world”, according to federal prosecutors.

In summary

The rise of the online black market has much to do with holes in postal security and the optimistic usage of cryptocurrencies and blockchain financial technologies. The virtually untraceable records of ownership and transactions mean much more can be accomplished discreetly. As consumers continue to opt for digital e-wallets, the scope of law enforcement will need to continually expand and therefore must rely on the aid of equally innovative solutions.

For more in-depth coverage of the crisis, read the whitepaper – Battling the Narcotics Crisis with Cellebrite Pathfinder

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