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Silk Road was a notorious cyber black market for illicit goods, and the first dark web market of the internet era. Launched in 2011 and shut down by the FBI in 2013, Silk Road paved the way for today’s underground world of dark web marketplaces. Learn the origins of the Silk Road and how dark web markets operate. Then, get a cybersecurity tool with a built-in VPN to encrypt your connection and secure all your web activity.
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Silk Road operated via a hidden darknet feature in the anonymous Tor network. Accessed with an app, the Tor network allowed users to anonymously browse Silk Road without the threat of traffic monitoring. All transactions were conducted in cryptocurrency — namely Bitcoin — which further ensured anonymity.
The Silk Road defined its name based on the historical network of trade routes between Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, and Europe. And although the Silk Road hasn’t operated for years, it laid the foundation for other darknet markets to follow. Today, the Silk Road is an important case study when analyzing the growth of other dark web markets.
The Silk Road was founded in 2011 by Ross Ulbricht, who used the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts.” Ulbricht created the Silk Road to enable anonymous online commerce while protecting users’ identities, transactions, and individual freedoms — this helped spur the trade of illicit goods. He operated the dark web marketplace until 2013.
In 2013, the FBI shut down the Silk Road website. That year, Ulbricht was arrested and charged with money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics, and attempting to have at least five people killed because they threatened to reveal the truth behind the Silk Road.
Before sentencing, in a letter to the judge, Ulbricht stated his actions were a commitment to his libertarian ideals: He believed the Silk Road gave people the freedom to make their own choices. He was given five sentences, including two life sentences without parole — and he was fined $183 million.
The Silk Road market operated on the Tor network, which masks your identity through IP address anonymity and encryption technology, while allowing you to find other websites on the dark web. Within the Tor network, customers could access the Silk Road, then anonymously connect with vendors to buy illegal goods with cryptocurrency.
The Tor Browser is downloaded via torproject.org. When the Silk Road was in operation, you could search for it on Tor and get redirected to a signup screen requiring a username and password.
Once access was granted, vendors and customers used the Silk Road to make transactions with cryptocurrency or via an escrow (a trusted third-party). To avoid detection, all purchased items were sent to alternative addresses, like PO boxes.
On the Silk Road, you could buy banned energy drinks, hacking services, digital goods (such as malware and pirated software), and forgeries (such as fake licenses and other illicit documents). Legal goods and services were also for sale (art, books, jewelry). But the most common and lucrative trade on the Silk Road was for drugs — by 2013, 70% of the products for sale on the Silk Road were drugs.
Like mainstream e-commerce platforms, Silk Road users could rate and review products and vendors. This helped promote reliable vendors and weed out the fraudsters.
When it opened, the Silk Road prohibited the sale of anything with the intent to “harm or defraud”: child pornography, assasinations, or weapons. Offshoots of the Silk Road were less prohibitive. Along with drugs, other dark web marketplaces have offered cyber-arms, weapons, and counterfeit currency.
But the dark web is more than just shady online black markets. You can use trusted dark web search engines to find some helpful dark websites. You can also find secure email services, independent journalism platforms, and even the dark web Wiki.
The Silk Road was shut down in 2013. Spearheaded by US Senator Charles Schumer, the DEA and Department of Justice conducted a lengthy investigation that led to the Silk Road’s eventual shutdown — along with the arrest of founder Ross Ulbricht.
The FBI seized crypto wallets of Silk Road users and arrested Ulbricht, collecting millions of dollars worth of Bitcoin. The seizure of Bitcoin and arrest of Ulbricht were meant to send a clear message to all other cybercriminal enterprises.
Since 2013, other dark web marketplaces have taken over, and the proliferation of these services is largely due to the success of the Silk Road. It’s the original inspiration for an extremely profitable underground global trade that continues today.
The dark web Silk Road is no longer active, but it established the template for other marketplaces to follow. Many of them use Tor for anonymous access, and conduct transactions through Bitcoin and escrow services. Some also have a rating system for vendors, just like the original Silk Road.
Long after the Silk Road marketplace was shut down, much of its proceeds were still purportedly missing. In 2020, Bitcoin blockchain verifiers spotted two transactions made from a Bitcoin address associated with the Silk Road.
Worth approximately $1 billion at the time, it was later revealed that the US Government made these transfers in a civil forfeiture action. According to a press release, the Bitcoin wallet belonged to “Individual X” who had stolen the Bitcoin by hacking the Silk Road.
Here are the fates of other dark web marketplaces that emerged in the wake of the Silk Road:
Silk Road 2.0: Run by the same administrators, this was a revamp of the original Silk Road. In 2014, the site’s escrow accounts were compromised, resulting in the reported theft of $2.7 million worth of Bitcoin. Later that year, Blake Benthall (a.k.a. “Defcon,” the alleged owner and operator of Silk Road 2.0) was arrested.
Utopia: Launched in 2014, Utopia was shut down after only 8 days, when undercover agents were able to buy large amounts of a variety of drugs. Utopia was used to trade drugs, weapons, stolen credit cards, and other illicit goods. Agents also seized around $610,900 in Bitcoin.
Black Goblin Market: Also launched in 2014, this marketplace was de-anonymized via a security oversight: Black Goblin would send confirmation to new users via email — with headers exposing the server’s true German IP address and other details. The site was shut down soon after.
Dark web markets are notorious for selling a variety of illegal goods.
Whether you want to access dark web markets or simply browse anonymously online, using a VPN alongside the best privacy browsers like Tor — which is still available to access the dark web today — can help protect your privacy and security. Check out our guide on whether a VPN, proxy, or Tor is best.
Today, in the post-Silk Road era, many online black markets continue to thrive. As a billion dollar industry dealing in illicit goods, dark web markets are a great concern for governments. US agencies, like the FBI, are constantly working with international law enforcement agencies to stop the growth of dark web markets all over the globe.
Here are some successful government efforts against dark web markets:
Operation Onymous (2014): Involving 17 countries, this major operation targeted several dark web markets. Authorities shut down around 27 websites, including Silk Road 2.0, Cloud9, and Hydra — seizing $1 million in Bitcoin, along with €180,000 in cash, gold, silver, and drugs.
Operation Bayonet (2017): This multinational operation targeted the AlphaBay and Hansa dark web markets.Their shutdown ultimately led to the rise in popularity of other markets, like TradeRoute and Dream Market.
Operation SaboTor (2019): This multi-agency crackdown led to the arrest of 61 people and 50 dark web accounts. Executing 65 search warrants, law enforcement seized more than 299 kilograms of drugs, 51 firearms, and $7 million in Bitcoin, cash, and gold.
Dream Market (2019): One of the most popular dark web drug markets at the time, Dream Market specialized in narcotics and stolen data. Authorities set up a sting operation, leading to the arrest of drug dealers accused of selling methamphetamine and heroin.
Dark Market (2021): The largest dark web marketplace was brought down by an international operation led by German authorities. Vendors mainly sold drugs, counterfeit money, stolen credit card details, anonymous SIM cards, and malware. The bust seized more than €140 million in crypto.
Even if you aren’t perusing darknet markets, true anonymous browsing will keep you safe from prying eyes — such as governments and your ISP. Our guide to private browsing is a start. From there, use encryption software and the best Google Chrome security and privacy extensions to shore up your security and privacy.
Anonymous browsing with a VPN or other encryption services will help hide your online activity from your government, ISP, or other prying eyes.
Silk Road was the biggest dark web market of its day. Today, there are more varieties of darknet markets — these new dark web markets are more likely to specialize in specific goods or a unique transaction system. Some imitate the Silk Road, while others find ways to innovate.
Darknet markets will exist as long as there remains supply and demand for illicit goods. Here are some of the biggest darknet marketplaces today:
AlphaBay: Taken down in 2017 during Operation Bayonet, AlphaBay was re-launched in 2021. This marketplace features an auction-style system similar to eBay. All transactions are made through a secure escrow system. Unlike most other darknet marketplaces, AlphaBay accepts other forms of cryptocurrencies in addition to Bitcoin.
VersusMarket: One of the largest “all-purpose” dark web markets, VersusMarket offers drugs along with a wide selection of counterfeit items, such as jewelry, gold, software, and carded items (acquired through illegal card purchases). VerusMarket is considered a community project and includes buyers in the development of the platform.
Vice City Market: This market prioritizes customer and vendor feedback to develop what it calls the best user experience. Vice City Market supposedly prides itself on excellent customer support and operational security. It also supports walletless purchases so customers don’t need to deposit additional cryptocurrency in their crypto wallets.
ASAP Market: Previously known as ASEAN Market, this market primarily focuses on drugs. An account is not required to browse the selection, but you need to register to buy. One of the perks of ASAP Market is its system for identifying scammers and fake reviews.
Despite demand for legitimacy, the world of darknet markets is rife with shady characters, scams, and instability. The marketplaces are also a hotbed for cyberattacks, and the threat of law enforcement means they could be shut down at any time.
All of this contributes to the volatility and criminality of cyber black markets. Since the rise of dark web markets, scams and shutdowns have always been an issue, resulting in massive financial losses throughout the years.
Here are the biggest dark web market scams and shutdowns in history:
The Evolution Marketplace: At its peak, this dark web market was known for its reliability and security. So users were alarmed when the site abruptly went down in 2015. Eventually, it was discovered that the shutdown was an “exit scam,” where the site's operators killed the website and stole approximately $12 million in escrowed Bitcoin.
The RealDeal: This marketplace specialized in selling malicious code and zero-day attacks. It was one of the many ambushed by a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack operation. The market owners discovered the attacker was collaborating with the owner of a rival — Mr. Nice Guy’s Market — who also had plans to scam his users.
Nucleus: This sizable market went offline in 2016 after a dispute between moderators and a merchant. It was alleged that the merchant hacked Nucleus after getting banned from selling on the market. Nucleus shut down, while holding around 5,000 escrowed Bitcoin coins from customer accounts.
Trade Route: The major crackdown, Operation Onymous, diverted customers from other marketplaces and led to the rise of Trade Route. But after being hacked and extorted in 2017, this dark web marketplace shut down.
The general volatility of darknet markets has led to calls for further decentralization of transactions to protect both buyers and vendors. If cryptocurrency is held in a customer account on a darknet platform, it’s always at risk if a site shuts down.
Commentators have suggested “multi-sig” crypto payments — requiring multiple keys to authorize a payment — and OpenBazaar, a fully-decentralized marketplace for e-commerce transactions.
Much of the allure of the Silk Road and other dark web markets is anonymity. Even if your online activity is completely legal, privacy is essential to avoid hackers and other snoops. Avast One is a comprehensive cybersecurity solution with a built-in VPN that fully encrypts your internet connection for true online privacy.
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