Dark Web Drug Markets Growing 'Exponentially' as Police Busts Target Open Web

dark web sites down drug bust
Europol seized more than 20,000 web domains peddling drugs and counterfeit goods in 2017. Police are concerned that thousands more may move to the dark web to evade the law. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer

The illegal drug market on the so-called dark web is growing rapidly according to a report that showed a crackdown on more than 20,000 rogue websites on the open web has forced vendors to underground sites.

The report by Europol and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) published Tuesday warned that criminals in Europe are turning to anonymous marketplaces and dealing in hard-to-trace cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, to elude police.

Internet analysts said criminals are seeing the dark web—a section of the internet that requires specialist software to access, such as the Tor browser—as an increasingly attractive platform for business.

"Individuals with nefarious intentions must either migrate to another underground shop with less reputation, or they must find alternate business techniques, such as selling on deep web forums," Kyle Wilhoit, a senior cybersecurity threat researcher at DomainTools, said in a statement emailed to Newsweek.

"Ultimately, this isn't surprising—considering other marketplaces have been compromised on several separate occasions. When you are conducting business with criminals, you must expect to some degree that your business is on shaky footing anyway, so this isn't terribly surprising to me."

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Europol Director Rob Wainwright said law enforcement agencies had targeted websites selling drugs and counterfeit goods and shut down over 20,000 domain names as part of an operation this year. He said the work was "vital… if we are to ultimately make the internet a safer place for consumers." However, he also recognized that criminals are able to quickly shift their business operations to the dark web.

Although he credited law enforcement with success in shutting down thousands of websites, Wainwright said, "despite this positive achievement, those involved in the online drug trade appear to be resilient to such disruption and able to reorganize rapidly."

The buildings of Europol at The Hague. JurgenNL

More than 170 million euros ($200 million) worth of drugs were sold over the dark web worldwide between 2011 and 2015, according to the report. Most were through major dark web sites like AlphaBay, Darknet Heroes League and House of Lions Market, though the report found that the majority of dark web sites survive less than one year.

Last month, some of the most popular drug markets on the dark web went offline following major cyberattacks against the sites.

"The shutdown of these underground marketplaces are becoming ever more commonplace," says Wilhoit. "The shutdown of AlphaBay and Hansa earlier this year will have led to criminals with established business on these sites into peddling their goods on some of these less known sites, which now leaves a further gap in the underground market."