One way to fell drug dealing on the darknet? Leave bad reviews

darknet battling bad reviews 13471680 l
Efim Kaparulin/123RF

Some parts of the darknet operate like an eBay or Amazon for illegal goods or services, ranging from the illicit to the abhorrent. And while law enforcement is proactively engaged with the problem, criminal investigations can take a long time to pursue, which is why experts are helping to come up with new ways to pour cold water on the darknet marketplace. One such researcher is Scott Duxbury, a sociology doctoral student at Ohio State University. Duxbury’s idea for cracking down on darknet drug sales is strikingly simple: leave bad reviews.

“There’s been a surge in darknet market purchasing over the past few years, some of the larger markets are bringing in over $500,000 per month,” Duxbury told Digital Trends. “We wanted to figure out how these markets behave, instead of just documenting the extent of trafficking. We wanted to examine the market as a complex system. So, how does it grow, where is it vulnerable, [and] what purchasing patterns sustain the market? We found that the biggest factor in market growth is trust. Contrary to what we’d expect, pricing has very little influence in how people decide to purchase drugs from the darknet. In another related study that we just presented at the American Sociological Association, we also found that the darknet drug market is more resilient to disruption attempts than real-world drug distribution rings.”

As part of Duxbury’s research, he analyzed transactions between 57 sellers and 706 buyers in opioid-related darknet transactions. He concluded that 82 percent of users during the period valued trustworthiness over cost. His idea, therefore, is to flood sellers’ pages with negative reviews, thereby rendering buyers unsure of who they can trust.

“Our evidence suggests that reviews count for more than on Clearnet markets or services, mainly because drug purchasing is high risk,” he continued. “Even without the threat of violence, drugs can be misidentified or contaminated with other substances, buyers have little recourse for fraud, and if a seller isn’t subtle in how they package drugs, buyers could be at risk for being identified by law enforcement.”

Duxbury and his colleagues have received a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation to extend their study. Currently they are in the process of collecting additional data to see how the market grows and responds to interventions or external shocks. If all goes according to plan, maybe it won’t be too long before a team of FBI agents — or maybe some smart bots — begin busting illegal drug rings.

A research paper was published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology.