Britain is the second most prolific country in the world for dealers facilitating a booming online trade in illegal drugs sold over the “dark web," researchers have found.
A study of so-called “cryptomarkets”, illegal websites such as the now defunct Silk Road which use encryption to hide the identity of vendors and customers, shows that the number of transactions completed online has tripled in just three years and is worth £15m a month.
Analysis of transactions carried out over a four-week period earlier this year showed that vendors in the United Kingdom accounted for 16 per cent of all trade worth £1.8m, second only to the United States, which took more than a third of the total.
20,000 UK Deals a Month
The research by think-tank RAND Europe found that Britain had 338 active sellers advertising drugs from cannabis to cocaine on encrypted websites and completed some 20,000 deals per month. On average, each dealer was making revenues of £5,100 per month – the highest in Europe. Britain was followed by Australia, Germany and the Netherlands in the ranking of numbers of vendors who advertise on a cryptomarket website.
Despite the high-profile closure of Silk Road by the FBI in 2013, leading to the sentencing of its founder Ross Ulbricht to life imprisonment, similar digital marketplaces have sprung up in its place, often staying in business for only a few months before then disappearing.
The websites harness encryption software such as Tor to anonymise users, who in turn use digital currencies such as Bitcoin to ensure transactions cannot be traced. The drugs are sent to customers by post.
Safety and Quality
Researchers said the online trade represented only a fraction of the “offline” conventional drugs trade, which is worth an estimated £1.7bn a month in Europe, but is attracting a rapidly-growing number of customers by offering perceived increases in safety and quality as well as ease of use. Revenues have doubled since the closure of Silk Road.
Stijn Hoorens, of RAND Europe, told i: “The UK is one of the most significant bases for vendors in this market and is certainly the biggest in Europe in terms of numbers of vendors and monthly revenue. It is a growing market.” He added: “The closure of Silk Road has not curbed the growth of these cryptomarkets, as more markets continue to be created and more illicit drugs are being bought online.
“Cryptomarkets are often online only for several months and users seem to be operating under the assumption that they could be closed at any moment.”
The researchers, including a team from Manchester University, found that both vendors and buyers tended to be young, English-speaking males with strong computer skills. The dealers also tended to be mixture of established criminals branching out into new sales methods and “newbies” harnessing the new technology after previously only supplying friends.
The most popular drug being bought online was cannabis, accounting for nearly 40 per cent of sales, followed by stimulants such as cocaine or stimulants (29 per cent) and Ecstasy-type drugs (19 per cent). The study also found that the cryptomarkets were also being used by conventional dealers as wholesale suppliers for drugs to sell on offline.
A quarter of all revenues came from deals worth $1,000 (£770) or more, suggesting the drugs were not for personal use but resale. Dealers are also adopting new tactics to thwart attempts by the authorities to crack down on the trade, the researchers found.
A move by Australian police to test all post coming from the Netherlands, which exports large quantities of Ecstasy, has led to Dutch dealers crossing the border into Germany to ensure their consignments carried German postmarks and were thus less likely to be intercepted. Either way, the digital market is proving lucrative. The most successful single vendor made an estimated £206,000 in a single month.
By Cahal Milmo - Essential Daily Briefing/Aug. 8, 2016
Photo: Getty file stock