A new study has revealed that in-demand coronavirus items, such as face masks, medications and vaccines, are up for sale on dark web marketplaces.
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 (R75).
But this increases to $33 (R498) for medicines, $250 (R3770) for tests and ventilators costing up to $1,400 (R21110).
Image by for Pexels Markus Spiske
Guides on scamming are being sold for $75 (R1131), fake medical records for $130 (R1960) and medical frauds — including fake vaccines — for around $275 (R4150).
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.
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.
Image from Pexels
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.
‘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.
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.