By Fran Berkman
Approaching 10,000 transactions with a nearly flawless customer satisfaction rating, Angelina got evicted (in a sense) from her place of business. Undeterred, Angelina bounced back and found not just one, but two new places to peddle her goods — generic versions of Viagra and Levitra, as well as Propranolol and THC lollipops.
Angelina was a vendor on Silk Road, which the FBI described as the Internet's largest "sprawling black market bazaar" after the agency seized the website and arrested its alleged owner earlier this month. Though we refer to Angelina as a female, in reality she's a highly secretive team of people who use sophisticated anonymizing technology to maintain a booming online drug business.
We communicated with Angelina through a series of encrypted messages before the fall of Silk Road, and she said her business runs "like a small Internet retailer/packing and shipping company." A couple weeks after the site closed, we reconnected with Angelina on Silk Road's forums, which are still up and running.
"The shutdown of Silk Road and the instantaneous rise of several new sites has taught us that the market is an idea, not a particular web address," Angelina wrote."It doesn't matter who, or where or how exactly — as long as there are buyers there will be sellers." If Angelina sounds like a successful entrepreneur, it's because she ran a multi-million dollar company before seeking a "change of pace" as an online drug dealer. At least that's what she told us. However, we were unable to confirm this because anonymity is of paramount importance in her line of work.
"It doesn't matter who, or where or how exactly — as long as there are buyers there will be sellers."
Today, Angelina's flavored butterscotch, lemon and strasberry (combination of strawberry and raspberry) THC suckers are available on what were once Silk Road's two biggest competitors, [sources removed], neither of which came close to matching Silk Road in terms of volume of business.
"A week into this and many of our past customers have already found us," Angelina wrote. "In fact, between the two sites we are already receiving about 10% of the daily orders we used to get, which is much better than expected."
Like Silk Road, both BMR and Sheep Marketplace are only accessible through Tor, a software that allows for anonymous Internet browsing. Vendors and buyers conduct transactions using the difficult-to-track digital currency Bitcoin.
Silk Road facilitated $1.2 billion worth of transactions and collected $80 million in commissions during its two-and-a-half year run, according to FBI documents. To get a sense of scale, there are more than 110,000 registered users on Silk Road's forums, while BMR, which launched in 2011, is closing in on 20,000 forum members.
The number of forum users may not be the best measure of the actual size of these sites' communities, though. If you believe "backopy," the owner of BMR, the site is actually much larger. In an April 30 forum post, backopy released the following charts detailing the growth of BMR's user base and trade volume:
"It turns out that diversity would have been a good idea to consider earlier," Angelina wrote, regarding her new commerce channels.
In the world of online contraband marketplaces, security is "sacrosanct," to borrow a term from the original Silk Road's owner. Silk Road replacements, of which there many, will need to keep Angelina, other vendors and sellers alike safe and secure from the threat of law enforcement, scammers and who knows what else.
Both BMR and Sheep Marketplace have experienced difficulties dealing with the increase in traffic caused by the flood of former Silk Road users. BMR even closed indefinitely last week because of a security breach, but the site reopened the next day after backopy decided the threat wasn't as bad as originally thought.
At this point, BMR and Sheep Marketplace are the two most battle-tested sites, but there is no shortage of upstarts vying for legitimacy. There has even been much anticipation on the various sites' forums, including Reddit, of a Silk Road relaunch, which has been endorsed by trusted members of the original Silk Road community. The figure orchestrating the operation is even fashioning himself as the "Dread Pirate Roberts," a reference to the film The Princess Bride which the owner of the original Silk Road also used.
Angelina told us she'll consider any and all new sites if they meet her security standards, and she even expressed a bit of optimism regarding the technology these sites are using: "The [Silk Road] shutdown has also demonstrated that the security measures being used are mostly working and where they might have fallen short, improvements are in the works."
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Image: SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images
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