Take a stroll down the dark alleys of the internet, and you’re bound to find some weird things. When it comes to COVID-19, there’s the usual scams and alleged cures, including blood that is supposedly from recovered coronavirus patients (selling for over $10,000 / liter).
However, not all darknet marketplaces are alike, and many have banned the sale of COVID-19 products altogether.
Darknet is not the wild-west-style free-for-all that many make it to be. It’s essentially a decentralized structure where several markets (cryptomarkets) have been developed.
These markets are illegal, or at the very least, extremely difficult to police. They’re protected by strong encryption software which makes it difficult for authorities to access, and you can only enter with a password and/or specialized software.
Each of these markets is controlled by an administrator, who ultimately gets to decide what is and isn’t sold on the cryptomarket. Universally banned goods or services include hitman services, trafficked human organs, and snuff movies.
From there on, however, markets take different paths on how they operate.
The vast majority of illicit products are drugs, though you can also find things like guns, private data (obtained who-knows-how), and medicine of dubious origin.
A report from the Australian National University looked at what COVID-19-related products can be found on the darknet. They found hundreds of such products on sale across a dozen cryptomarkets.
By far, the most shocking such product was blood from COVID-19 survivors. The idea is that people who have had it produce antibodies that can help others fend off the disease. This approach has actually been discussed in a scientific context and there is therapeutic potential here, but buying blood from an unknown seller online is absolutely not the way to go about it.
The blood was allegedly gathered from willing donors and is being sold for exorbitant prices, up to $14,000 per liter of blood. It’s not clear exactly where the blood was coming from, but it was sourced through a distributor in Sweden.
Rod Broadhurst, the lead researcher of the study, says that buyers are expected to inject the blood as a way of inoculating themselves against COVID-19.
“The word I think is passive vaccination, where the blood plasma of a recovered COVID-19 patient is harvested for the antibodies and that is then used to inject into someone who may be at risk of COVID-19,” he told the ABC.
Most of the coronavirus-related products, however, were much tamer. The most common type of product was PPE, some of it presumably stolen from factories or other distributors. Some repurposed drugs (like chloroquine or remdesivir) were also peddled. Researchers also noted that a few peddlers were offering completely unproven COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, and it’s still not clear what those products actually were.
Most of these products were being shipped out of the US (61%), followed by Europe (6%). However, overall, there were still very few COVID-19 products on cryptomarkets. According to this research, these products account for only about 0.2% of all listed items. The most common items overall were still your cannabis or MDMA’s — and while that’s far from okay, it’s still encouraging to see that illegal COVID-19 sales have not skyrocketed.
This is, in part, owed to the cryptomarket administrators themselves. Several have outright banned the sale of any such products, with one administrator tweeting:
“Any vendor caught flogging goods as a ‘cure’ to coronavirus will not only be permanently removed from this market but should be avoided like the Spanish Flu. You are about to ingest drugs from a stranger on the internet –- under no circumstances should you trust any vendor that is using COVID-19 as a marketing tool to peddle tangible/already questionable goods. I highly doubt many of you would fall for that shit to begin with but you know, dishonest practice is never a good sign and a sure sign to stay away.”
The researchers note that the sale of COVID-19 products was generally frowned upon on the darknet, much in the way convicted pedophiles are segregated from mainstream prison populations. Another popular market administrator was even more direct in his ban:
“You do not, under any circumstances use COVID-19 as a marketing tool. No magical cures, no silly fucking mask selling, toilet paper selling. None of that bullshit. We have class here”.
So it seems that barring the very questionable activity of a few sellers, there’s not much illegal COVID-19 trafficking going around — but that’s not to say that the products don’t warrant attention.
If there’s one thing that warrants further attention, it’s the weird things people are trying to sell off as COVID-19 drugs or vaccines.
The researchers conclude that “the presence of fraudulent or untested vaccines and medicines warrants closer attention”, as it represents a “risk presented by darknet sales of COVID-19 products.”