The Dark Web plays host to billions of dollars in trade. Most of the items being sold on the Dark Web would get you in hot water if anyone caught you with them. These include drugs, illegal weapons, bootleg media and more.
Which brings up the question: how do thousands of people buy hot items on the Dark Web every day without getting caught? Before we can answer that question, let's first look at how normal, legitimate online shopping works for comparison.
How Regular Online Shopping Works
When you buy something online from a company like Amazon, there's a lot that happens to make it all work properly.
First of all, there has to be a website with all the products listed so that you can choose what you want to buy. The company runs a server and hosts the website and all its software on a server that anyone with a web browser can access.
You pick out all the things you want and put them into a virtual cart. Once you've decided on your stuff, you'll check out. Where you provide a name and address for the goods to be shipped to. Then, finally, you pay for your order using something like a credit card or a bank transfer.
This sounds pretty straightforward, right? Thanks to HTTPS encryption and site certificates, shopping online is very safe indeed.
Now, imagine that you're buying something illegal. All of a sudden this safe and secure process is a liability. Everyone involved in this process knows who you are. They know what you bought. Clearly, that's a problem for someone who wants to buy something they shouldn't.
The Most Dangerous Aspects of Buying on the Dark Web
Let's break down the main risks of buying something through the Dark Web.
The first issue is trust. No one on the Dark Web knows the identity of anyone else on the Dark Web. This makes it very hard to do business. Since you can be scammed at any moment. Dark Web markets actually exist to more or less solve this problem. They establish themselves as a trusted middleman, ensuring that both buyer and seller get what they want, taking a cut for rendering the service. Of course in some cases, entire markets can turn out to be scams themselves. Disappearing overnight with all the in-transit money in tow. That's pretty rare though and thanks to the markets themselves getting scammed by a seller are also seldom seen.
So what are the actual dangers? The main issue is someone finding out who you really are. You don't want the people running the market, the seller or any third parties such as law enforcement. If your real identity is uncovered, it can open you up to all sorts of negative consequences. Not least of which is getting arrested and going to jail.
The Technologies that Can Protect You
The good news is that the technology the Dark Web itself uses to work is already a pretty powerful anonymity solution. Using the Tor network with its powerful onion routing and encryption, it's almost impossible to determine who anyone connected to the network is.
On top of this, there's cryptocurrency, which allows you to pay someone anonymously. Well, at least in theory, but we'll talk about that in a little while.
Finally, there are privacy tools that operate from your end. For example, VPN technology, special operating systems, and privacy testing tools. These tools play a pivotal role in buying safely on the Dark Web. So next let's look at how best to go about it while using them.
Many of these recommended practices actually apply to just about anything that you do on the Dark Web, not just shopping. Just to reiterate, we are not condoning the purchase of illegal items from the Dark Web, just describing the tools and methods people use to protect their identities while doing so.
Use Tor (and Tails)
We've already talked about Tor above, and really this isn't an optional one, to be honest. Most Dark Web sites can only be accessed using Tor hidden services. Simply head over to the Tor Project website and download the preconfigured Tor browser. While Tor will keep you pretty safe by itself, you shouldn't feel too comfortable. For one thing, your operating system itself can give plenty away about where you've been and what you've done. You can step the protection up a notch by combining Tor with Tails. A special live OS that doesn't store any information about your activities and leaves no trace on the computer you use it on.
Test Your Privacy
Operating system-based privacy betrayal isn't the only way in which your computer can give away personal, identifiable information about you. Your own browser and other various pieces of software running on your computer can also give your identity or location away without you ever knowing. So it's a good idea to use one of the privacy testing services that will show you what information is leaking from your machine. Of course, the best course is still to use something like Tails or Qubes for the occasions where you want to use the Dark Web for any reason. Not just using markets.
Provide Fake Personal Info
It should go without saying, but you should not give any personal information to a seller or the market itself. Don't post anything that can be traced back to you. Even your choice of user name could be a clue if you formulated it from something related to you. So resist naming yourself after your favorite sports team or TV show. Pick a word or some numbers at random. Be incognito and say no more than needed to complete the deal.
Use The Right Cryptocurrency
When Bitcoin first hit the scene, plenty of people were convinced that this was the answer to anonymous, digital cash. For a while this was true, but authorities quickly figured out that they could match Dark Web transactions to specific wallets, using the public ledger system that Bitcoin is based on. This has given rise to so-called Bitcoin "tumbler", which uses a special exchange process to make it harder for anyone to trace transactions. Still, when you get down to it Bitcoin is not private. If the market you're aiming to use supports other more private currencies such as Monero, it may be a better idea to use that instead. However, it's always an arms race and even Monero's privacy is already under attack.
Use Anonymous Email
In order to register with a Dark Web market, you'll probably have to provide an email address. Using your work or general private email address is a bad idea. That email is linked to plenty of services, such as social media, that can be traced back to you with almost no effort.
No, a much better idea is to use a dedicated, encrypted and anonymous email service. We've written about anonymous email before and you'll find plenty of excellent suggestions there.
Use a VPN
While any traffic pushed through the Tor network will be encrypted, your ISP and government can still see that you are in fact using Tor. By using a VPN on top of your general Tor internet use will keep them in the dark as to what you're doing. Apart from Dark Web use you should invest in a VPN regardless since the internet, in general, is in a pretty bad place when it comes to privacy these days.
Use a Dead Drop
Since the days of Silk Road, sellers have simply used the postal service to deliver the goods. Carefully packaged to avoid detection of course. With millions of package moving around every day the chances that your package will be discovered is slime. Moreover, just because someone mailed an illegal item to your address does not mean it's yours. You can plausibly deny that it's your package. After all, the address may have been a mistake and your name isn't going to be on it. Of course, no one uses their home address. They rent a PO box, otherwise, the seller will know where you live!
The postal method has worked well enough in the past, but times are changing. The various postal services of the world have noticed the massive uptick in a package that has turned them into an illegal merchandise distribution network. Which is why inspection and postal law enforcement is being stepped up like crazy. That makes using this option much riskier than it's been in the past.
Instead, many markets now offer a "dead drop" service. They will have several neutral locations where you can surreptitiously collect your package. Of course, this comes with its own dangers, so the person making the pickup should probably wear something that obscures their face and ensure the drop isn't being watched. Hey, no one said getting your stuff would be as simple as using Amazon.
The Buying Process in Summary
So now that we've covered all the background information that's relevant, it's time to summarize the general process of buying from a Dark Web market. Obviously, there are going to be variations on the exact details, but this is more or less how it goes.
The first thing you should do is to open a cryptocurrency wallet and buy some currency to put in it. If you're buying Bitcoin you should run your balance through a tumbler before buying anything.
The next step is to buy and activate a VPN service. There are plenty of good ones out there, but we often recommend ExpressVPN as the best general-purpose choice.
Once these two steps are done with, you need to either download the Tor browser or set up Tails. This is what you'll use to access the Dark Web itself.
You'll also need the .onion address of the marketplace in question. Finding that would be up to you, but this information is scattered all over the surface web. Once you find the market you want to use, you'll have to register as a buyer. Here things become very nonstandard since each market will have different registration requirements.
Once registered as a buyer, you simply browse the site and add the items you want to your list. When you've settled on the item, order and pay for it with your cryptocurrency. This process may not be automated and require negotiation or discussion with the seller first.
With all of that done, it's time to specify your delivery destination. Keep in mind what we wrote above when it comes to using dead drops. This is one of the most sensitive aspects of the process.
For Informational Purposes Only
Once again, while we could never presume to tell you what to do, this information is provided only to raise awareness of what's going on with the internet we all share every day. We are not condoning or suggesting that you ever buy anything illegal. The purpose of the article is to show, in general terms, how these transactions actually happen.
Have you ever used a Dark Web market? Would you risk it? Let us know in the comments. Lastly, we’d like to ask you to share this article online. And don’t forget that you can follow TechNadu on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks!