It’s the typical end of a darknet marketplace: Empire, which until recently was the largest platform for online drug trafficking, disappears into the darkness of the net after a DoS storm. The operators take the customers’ Bitcoins and Monero with them.
The Darknet is the place on the Internet that can only be reached with the Tor browser and where websites can be reached as a hidden service under cryptic addresses. In this Darknet, drug trafficking has been flourishing since 2011 on so-called “Darknet marketplaces”, which function like an Amazon for illegal goods and services. The legendary Silk Road led the way, hundreds of marketplaces followed. They usually pay with Bitcoin, but increasingly also with Monero.
The history of the darknet marketplaces runs in typical cycles: a marketplace takes the lead, attracts all illegal commerce, but also the attention of the police and blackmailers, and finally the marketplace goes offline. This can happen, as with Silk Road or Hansa, because the police arrest the operator; in rare cases, it can proceed in an orderly manner, with the admins closing the platform and paying out all coins, as with Blackmarket Reloaded or Dream Market. Most often, however, a darknet marketplace ends with an exit scam: The operators shut down the systems, disappear into anonymity and take all cryptocurrencies with them on their wallets.
Presumably, such a grand finale to a criminal net career is the logical consequence of anonymous business. What is missing is the social control that influences human behavior when you can be held accountable for your actions. Without this, it is left to the individual’s moral sense alone whether or not to enrich himself at the expense of others.
Apparently the admins of the darknet marketplace Empire couldn’t resist the temptation.
It started last week with a huge DoS wave through the darknet that flooded most of the Tor nodes with data. This was the first successful DoS wave since a moderator of the darknet forum Dread published the EndGame filter in May of this year, which prevented DoS attacks on darknet pages and nodes. Thanks to this filter, the availability of the markets in the Darknet has apparently improved enormously compared to the previous year.
However, attackers have now succeeded in circumventing this filter. As a result of the wave, Empire could not be reached or only to a limited extent, as was numerous other Darknet sites. Only the Russian Hydra market managed to remain permanently available, which may be due to the fact that the admins use their own version of the Tor software.
Then on August 23rd, a presenter from Empire reached out to Dread to announce that they were working hard to get the market back live. Rumors of an exit scam are exaggerated. The DoS attack then intensified, rumors circulated that the Empire admins were already moving Bitcoins, and fake sites popped up trying to steal Empire users’ usernames and passwords.
Just one day later, Empire received less optimistic news: “If the market continues to be down in a few days, I’ll write a post about the whole situation,” said the moderator Se7en, who managed the Empire’s forum, “it still is early, maybe the moderators will start the market again. ”Obviously the moderator didn’t know what was really going on either. This is also a consequence of anonymous business relationships.
A day later, Se7en resigned. The backend of the marketplace is also down, the admins have disappeared from chat groups. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that the market will return. He didn’t think it was planned that way. Empire was supposed to be the longest-running darknet market of all time. But the operation became more and more tiring, and the admins had to pay more and more protection money to DoS groups. When the protection of the EndGame filter finally failed, it became too much for them. They gave up, but gilded their goodbyes by taking about 2,638 bitcoin (about $ 30 million) with them.
What follows is just as typical as the exit scam: Established markets try to attract swarms of users, new markets are started to fill the gap. You could call it a kind of immune system of the darknet, which creates three new ones for every market that disappears. However, many of the marketplaces, especially the new ones, are likely to be started with the intention of causing an exit scam soon. Maybe even from the same developers who have already pulled off one or more exit scams.
For users, the situation on the Darknet marketplaces is anything but pleasant. It should be comfortable to have your favorite drug sent home in the mail. But you pay for giving criminal actors your postal address, making yourself vulnerable and threatening forever that the police will get the address. In addition, the darknet markets in the digital space reproduce similar criminal skimming structures as the drug trade in the real world: Actors switch between buyers and sellers who withdraw money, be it the DoS gangs demanding a ransom, be it the admins who do the exit scam. With this, the utopia of direct trade falls, which the consumers probably (also) get to spare in the prices, and the online drug trade becomes just as or similarly dirty as the physical one.