The Internet is a scary place, and one security company has outlined just how scary it can be.
Software security firm Trend Micro released a report on Monday outlining the many ways people can order up drugs, guns, and even murder across the U.S. and Canada. The company analyzed sites and forums on the “surface web”—the industry term for the location of searchable sites—and the “dark web,” where non-indexed sites reside. According to the security company, it’s shockingly easy to find “forums and marketplaces” where drug dealers, illegal arms dealers, and even hit men are waiting.
“Anyone armed with the right search query can enter,” the company wrote in its report. “This underground is not a locked vault accessible only to the tech-savviest of hackers, but rather a glass tank—open and visible to both cybercriminals and law enforcement. Cybercrime operations are treated like regular businesses.”
Perhaps most shocking is that Trend Micro’s analysis took it to underground sites that offer murder for hire. For $45,000, a hit man, offering “professionalism,” would murder someone upon request. Targets in the public eye would cost $180,000. Apparent hit men also charge for crippling, bombings, making a person “go missing,” and “simple” beatings of individuals or entire families.
“Many murder-for-hire sites guarantee a certain level of ‘professionalism,'” Trend Micro says. “Hit men provide certain guarantees of keeping their clients anonymous.”
Trend Micro’s findings are part of a broader study from the company on the Internet’s “underground.” The underground Internet or dark web is neither new nor by definition illegal—but for the vast majority of people, it’s an unknown world they’ve never been to. Law-enforcement officials have long warned that the dark web is a place where stolen Social Security numbers, credit cards, and illegal pornography are sold. It’s also home to illegal drug stores.
Still, there is some speculation over just how big the dark web is. In August, Vice took a deep dive into the underground sites to see how they operate. The investigation found that hit-men sites may either be fake or run by undercover law-enforcement officials. The site called the mysteries surrounding the dark web little more than an “exaggerated myth” that encompasses a “small collection of websites.” Indeed, Trend Micro estimates that there are just 100,000 people surfing the dark web. The vast majority of sites living there—62%—cater to drug users. Just 1% claim to offer murder-for-hire, and several reports over the years from investigators to Reddit users who claim to have been on the dark web have questioned whether those sites are even legitimate.
Regardless, Trend Micro says accessing the underground Internet is somewhat easy, and users who do so often employ anonymizers to hide their identities. They often also pay in the cryptocurrency bitcoin, which encrypts transactions and hides the identities of those who own the digital currency. All of that anonymizing not only makes it harder to find users, but also to determine the legitimacy of the sites and services offered.
The underground Internet became a focal point earlier this year when Ross Ulbricht, the founder of Silk Road, an underground e-commerce site where users could order drugs to be shipped to their homes, was sentenced to life in prison. While the site was taken down in 2013, Trend Micro says many others have cropped up in its place, offering customers everything from marijuana to heroin.
“Apart from actual drugs, guides on producing them or the tools needed to do so are also available,” Trend Micro writes in its report. “We found a guide for making crack, for instance, sold for a mere $5.”
Drugs and murder are just the tip of the iceberg. Trend Micro discovered that customers can find tools that help them hack into computers and servers. An e-commerce store discovered by Trend Micro has a convenient drop-down list, offering customers counterfeit items, fraudulent documents, and weapons of all kinds. Users also can buy fake passports and stolen credit card credentials.
Trend Micro (TMICY) says U.S. and Canadian governments have been working hard at taking down the sites and finding those behind them. The company also noted that while making the sites more accessible to North American buyers may be helpful in securing revenue, it also makes them more visible to law enforcement seeking out such services.
“This underground is a glass tank, as much as it is transparent, it is also fragile,” Trend Micro wrote. “Although several criminal transactions are done out in the open, they are very fickle. The life span of most underground sites is short. They could be up one day and gone the next. Investigations will have to keep up with this fast pace.”
Looking ahead, Trend Micro says it will continue to investigate the underground Internet and alert law enforcement to illegal sites. The company, without providing specifics, says it expects “more (site) takedowns and arrests in the near future.”
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