Fentanyl Sales in the Deep & Dark Web
As the U.S. opioid epidemic persists, the drugs that are fueling the crisis have found a customer base in Deep & Dark Web (DDW) marketplaces. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid more potent than heroin, is one such drug that is being sold in underground marketplaces.
Fentanyl is sold in various illicit marketplaces. For years, surface web “pharmacies” – sites often run by legitimate pharmacists outside the United States who sell cheaper generics online to consumers in countries in which healthcare is more expensive – have offered fentanyl products alongside other prescription drugs, such as inhalers and eye drops. For example, there exist pharmacies run by Indian pharmacists catering to customers in the United States. Through 2016 and the first half of 2017, however, the majority of these pharmacies have stopped the sale of fentanyl on their platforms. This decrease in the number of pharmacies offering fentanyl for sale is likely due to the number of reported deaths by overdose from the drug and fear of increased law enforcement scrutiny.
Several DDW marketplaces have likewise banned the sale of the drug. A medium-sized dark net market was one of the first to ban the sale of fentanyl and related products in 2016, while the now-defunct Hansa market officially banned the drug on July 17, 2017. The ban on Hansa was instigated by a site moderator and was supported by Dutch authorities, who infiltrated the marketplace on June 20, 2017. Additionally, conversations and petitions to stop the sale of fentanyl on the marketplace circulated for months before Hansa’s takeover by law enforcement.
The move by Hansa to ban fentanyl generated significant discussion on the site. While some members of the marketplace were dismayed by the measure, citing the belief in “free markets,” a portion of actors expressed support for the ban on moral grounds. Others felt the decision was a strategic move to reduce law enforcement interest in the community. Hansa was taken down by law enforcement on July 20, 2017.
A July 20, 2017 statement from the U.S. Department of Justice cited fentanyl and heroin as two of the reasons for the July 5 seizure and takedown of the AlphaBay Market, formerly the largest marketplace in the DDW. The opening of the official Department of Justice statement on AlphaBay reads:
‘Dark Net’ Site Was Major Source of Fentanyl and Heroin, Linked to Overdose Deaths, and Used By Hundreds of Thousands of People to Buy and Sell Illegal Goods and Services Anonymously over the Internet
Flashpoint analysts assess with a moderate degree of confidence that a portion of the remaining underground markets will likely ban the sale of fentanyl on their sites in an attempt to decrease law enforcement scrutiny. A handful of markets will, however, likely continue to sell fentanyl products due to high demand for the drug.
In the aftermath of the Hansa seizure, other dark net markets are vying to become the most popular marketplaces for the sale of fentanyl. Flashpoint research conducted using the darknet search engine Grams revealed that much of the fentanyl found for sale in the DDW is hosted on these two other large dark net markets. Of the two current top contenders, one has forty-nine fentanyl products for sale, while searches on the other market return nearly 1,000 results for “fentanyl.”
Flashpoint analysts conducted a limited study into the locations of various underground fentanyl vendors using data included in their listings. Most listings for fentanyl indicate where the order ships from and where products can be shipped.
Flashpoint analysts discovered that the plurality of fentanyl is shipped from within the United States; many European countries also appear in the list of the most common shipping locations. Fourteen percent of all fentanyl products surveyed by Flashpoint are shipped from Germany, while the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic (Czechia) are also popular shipping origin locations.
Many of the fentanyl vendors in the criminal underground ship from a specific country, and indicate that the highest success rate for their shipments occurs when orders are shipped within that country. While orders outside of their country risk seizure at higher rates, many vendors are willing to ship their products globally.
It is common for drug vendors to offer refunds and reshipments when the product is not delivered, either as a result of a seizure or due to the shipment getting lost in the mail. In such cases, the vendor will send the recipient another order for a percentage of the price of the original; many vendors will offer reshipments at 50 percent of the price of the original order.
A handful of vendors, however, will not offer reshipments or will offer reshipments at less favorable prices for residents of certain countries that they consider more difficult to ship to. One vendor who ships from China, for example, refuses to refund or reship orders to Australia, Canada, and Scandinavia.
To increase shipping success rates, all vendors studied by Flashpoint encouraged their clients to use their real names, stating that they refused to offer refunds and reshipments in cases in which the recipient did not use their real name. In an effort to avoid being defrauded by their clients, many vendors track the packages and require signatures upon delivery. Tracking the package allows the vendor to know when their goods have been received and when they can expect payment; many drug vendors require an order to be finalized immediately upon receipt of the package.
Underground markets have become important distribution channels for fentanyl and other drugs, helping connect consumers to a vast global supply chain of the deadly prescription drug. While pressure from law enforcement appears to have successfully decreased the availability of fentanyl on surface web “pharmacies” and prompted Hansa to ban the substance shortly before its seizure, fentanyl remains readily available in the DDW.
It is unclear what effect the takedown of the AlphaBay and Hansa marketplaces by law enforcement will have on the sale of fentanyl in the DDW. Vendors are often active on a variety of marketplaces, and are known to move their operations from marketplace to marketplace following seizures. While many vendors of fentanyl remain active on other darknet markets, Flashpoint analysts assess with a moderate degree of confidence that other fentanyl vendors will likely curtail their activities, at least until the cybercriminal underground stabilizes and widespread paranoia surrounding compromises marketplaces subsides.
• Hansa Market
• Valhalla Market