Science

Covid-19 medicines, PPE, tests and vaccines are being sold on the dark web

In-demand coronavirus items, such as face masks, medications and vaccines, are being flogged on dark web marketplaces, a new study reveals. 

Opportunistic con-artists are also using the dark web to sell ventilators and guides on how to scam people during the pandemic. 

Prices vary depending on item, with PPE and coronavirus-specific website names, like ‘covid-testing.in’ and ‘coronavintheworld.com’, being the cheapest at just $5. 

But this increases to $33 for medicines, $250 for tests and ventilators costing up to $1,400. 

Guides on scamming are being sold for $75, fake medical records for $130 and medical frauds — including fake vaccines — for around $275. 

The first sham inoculations appeared for sale as early as March, despite the first legitimate vaccine not being approved until December. 

The researchers say policymakers should use this data to investigate the risks covert marketplaces pose to public health, which they say is even more pertinent now considering the global vaccine rollout. 

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Pictured, the number of listings for items of PPE throughout 2020 on dark web marketplaces. PPE listings spiked in May when the pandemic began to ravage much of the world, including the UK and the US, the two nations with the largest number of imports and exports, and legal sources failed to keep up with soaring demand

Four peaks in public attention towards touted medications (pictured) were detected after four declarations from President Trump about hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine and azithromycin

Four peaks in public attention towards touted medications (pictured) were detected after four declarations from President Trump about hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine and azithromycin

What is the dark web?  

The dark web is part of the internet which hides away from conventional means of tracking and traffic. 

It is undetectable from search engines and can only be accessed via specialist software, called Tor. 

This software hides a person’s identifying features, such as their IP address.  

This allows people to anonymously communicate with others in small networks, which has led to marketplaces opening up. 

However, the nature of the dark web means there is no verification or guarantees of legitimacy.  

As a result it is rife with people buying and selling illegal items, including weapons, drugs, stolen personal details and malware.  

Mathematicians from City, University of London, and the Alan Turing Institute published their findings in the journal EPJ Data Science

‘We were surprised by the diverse offering we found on dark markets,’ Dr Andrea Baronchelli, lead author of the study, told MailOnline. 

‘The other thing that surprised us is the rapidity with which dark markets react to fads and misinformation. 

‘We saw this clearly for example in the case of hydroxychloroquine, for which we found 65 listings, a number that grew rapidly when Trump mentioned the drug.’ 

The study monitored 30 dark web forums between January 1 and November 16, 2020, finding 851,199 listings.

A total of 788 on 13 sites were deemed to be specific to Covid-19 and  there were 9,464 total listings.  

The cumulative cost of all the coronavirus items detected as part of the research surpassed half a million US dollars. 

The most prolific site on the dark web which was selling Covid-related items was DarkBay, which is ‘regarded as the eBay of the dark web because it offers more listings categories than other dark web marketplaces’, the researchers say in their study. 

DarkBay contained 425 (54 per cent) of all Covid listings, with more than half of these (293) pertaining to PPE.

DarkBay remained online for longer than rival dark web sites, with it accessible 80 per cent of the time. The largest dark website in the world, known as Empire, had an uptime of just 77 per cent in comparison, the researchers say. 

Empire shut down in August, but was home to 94 listings before it closed. There were 50 in MagBO, 49 in DarkMarket, 48 in The Canadian Headquarters, 42 in White House, and 35 in Yellow Brick, the study shows.

Most people selling pandemic-related items on the dark web had only a handful of listings, with 80 per cent of vendors selling less than five different items. 

Pictured, a graphical breakdown of the distribution of active listings found by researchers on the dark web

Pictured, a graphical breakdown of the distribution of active listings found by researchers on the dark web 

Pictured, the number of listings for PPE and medicines on the dark web throughout 2020, on a logarithmic scale

Pictured, the number of listings for PPE and medicines on the dark web throughout 2020, on a logarithmic scale 

‘This may imply that vendors of COVID-19 related products have a focus on a specific product category, or are just creating one-off listings to try to make quick money,’ the researchers say.  

The data shows trends in the clandestine sale of coronavirus items, with the first Covid-related item appearing for sale on January 28, following the Wuhan lockdown. 

PPE listings spiked in May when the pandemic hit much of the world and legal sources failed to keep up with soaring demand; the UK and the US were the two nations with the largest number of imports and exports, the study found. 

There was then a sudden decrease in PPE listings after July, as PPE gradually became more available worldwide through legitimate businesses. 

Covid-19 items on sale on the dark web  
Category Listings Total observations Vendors
PPE 355 5660 88
Medicines 228 1917 106
Scamming guides 99 1244 40
Web domains 50 189 15
Medical frauds 34 316 23
Tests 17 51 13
Fake medical records 3 9 3
Ventilators 2 78 2
Covid 788 9464 252

The trends for medicine listings was more convoluted and directly linked to misinformation spread by prominent voices, including Donald Trump. 

‘Covid-19 medicines remained approximately stable throughout [summer], with a peak after USA president Donald Trump first referred to chloroquine,’ the authors write.

‘Four peaks in public attention were detected after four declarations from President Trump about [medicines hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine and azithromycin].’

The researchers now hope to build on their findings by looking at more dark web marketplaces as well as looking at more wide-reaching implications of the pandemic, such as on drugs, weapons and malware. 

‘By revealing that DWMs listings of goods related to COVID-19 exist and are correlated with public attention, we highlight the need for a close monitoring of the online shadow economy in the future months, in order to control and anticipate dangerous effects of the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’,’ the researchers say.   


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