When the Silk Road marketplace was shut down in October 2013, many felt the arrest of its owner Ross Ulbricht signaled the end of the dark market as means to sell illegal and unauthorised goods including counterfeits. The intervening months have shown this to be demonstrably not the case, with many more competing markets being launched, including a new and improved Silk Road 2.0.
[caption id="attachment_1950" align="aligncenter" width="474"] Anonymous market place in the deep web[/caption]
Dark market sites are not part of the regular, common-or garden-internet which most of us inhabit on a day to day basis as they can only be accessed through the Tor network.
The Tor anonymising network is a system of pseudo-anonymous networking, originally sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory that allows users to access various internet resources such as web sites and forums with some degree of privacy. Tor also enables access to a number of hidden resources inaccessible to normal internet users. Commonly called “onion sites”1,
these locations feature content often excluded from the ‘clear net’.
Hidden onion sites on Tor are generally only accessible to those who have installed the Tor browser bundle2, a specially designed set of software which allows access to Tor through a modified version of Firefox. However, regular web users can take advantage of services such as tor2web.org and onion.to to access onion sites. These services act as a web-based proxy gateway to Tor and allow access to sites such as The Tor Directory and the Hidden Wiki3 (directories of many of the most popular services hosted via Tor) via a slightly amended URL4
However, it is vital to note that while using such methods provides simple access to onion sites, it does not provide any of the anonymity and protections that the full use of the Tor browser affords users. Using a service such as tor2web also places trust in the operator of the proxy. As such, any visits to the Tor network using a web-based proxy should be employed with caution (and indeed, a recent exploit of the Tor browser itself shows that anonymity cannot be guaranteed when using the network ).5
Browsing these sites can be something of a shock for the average web user, whose idea of living dangerously on the internet probably amounts to checking their Facebook feed while in a meeting with their boss. The world of Tor is a far darker place, with hit men offering to take out your unfaithful spouse, alongside drug dealers and pornographers. Throw in a healthy dash of scammers and hackers and five minutes with the Tor browser will convince you that you are not in Kansas anymore.
The primary means of carrying out transactions in the Tor world is through the transfer of Bitcoin, a decentralised crypto-currency that adds another layer of anonymity to proceedings.
It is perhaps unsurprising that such an environment is also an attractive potential market for counterfeiters. Using dark markets, such as Silk Road 2.0 or Hydra marketplace, sellers are able to advertise and sell a swathe of counterfeit products, with few of the risks associated with operating on the clear net.
[caption id="attachment_1951" align="aligncenter" width="485"] Available in the deep web[/caption]
A quick sweep of a few of these sites, turned up listings for openly counterfeit designer clothes, bags, sunglasses and watches, offered for a fraction of the price of the real item.
[caption id="attachment_1955" align="aligncenter" width="306"] Watches and jewellery are readily available[/caption]
Cigarettes and prescription style medication such as Viagra are also widely available on many dark market sites. These may come from grey market channels, or could be totally counterfeit and harmful to health.
[caption id="attachment_1953" align="aligncenter" width="270"] Counterfeit drugs are a big problem[/caption]
Other products available include counterfeit coupons offering huge discounts at a number of web and bricks and mortar stores, as well as - presumably stolen - memberships to online services such as Netflix, Hulu, or Xfinity Online.
While the quality of these products found was not tested, many users seemed happy with what’s on offer, providing feedback in the same way that a user of Ebay or Amazon might. Sellers are then able to build up trust and reputation on a site, a very important attribute when sellers are effectively untraceable and buying anything involves a significant risk of completely losing every penny spent should the seller disappear.
To manage this risk, many sites have implemented sophisticated systems of escrow, that do not release payments until the buyer is happy with the received product. Such systems have been very popular since they were developed and have significantly reduced the risk of buying materials from dark market sites.
For rights holders, the presence of counterfeit versions of their products pose obvious reputational risks, especially when featured alongside listings of illegal drugs or weapons that make up much of the rest of these dark market sites.
At present, the clear net still offers sufficient avenues for counterfeiters to sell their product on sites such as Aliexpress, DHgate and iOffer. However as enforcement actions against such sites become more common place, the unregulated dark markets will offer a potential refuge to those engaged in the sale of counterfeit goods.
The anonymous nature of the Tor network and Bitcoin transactions makes it far more difficult to shut down sites or investigate vendors than on the wider, public internet.
However, when infringing products are found on Tor, there is scope for a carefully designed system of test purchases to provide additional information and data on those offering products through these illegitimate channels.
NetNames has an experienced enforcement operations department which offers a thorough and careful test purchasing process.
Ricky Bruce, Piracy Intelligence Analyst, NetNames