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Dark web listings reveal a troubling COVID-19 underworld

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  • Three cybersecurity firms recently released reports showing what virus-related goods are being advertised on the dark web.
  • “Medical equipment is in incredibly high demand,” says one researcher, who has documented masks listed for sale by the hundreds or thousands, and at a high premium. 
  • Other listings hawk serums, supposedly virus-infected blood, and anti-malarial drugs.
  • In one of the most unusual finds, researchers found a post claiming to auction off access to a politically themed US website “great for raising panic about the coronavirus.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The global pandemic has sparked a thriving COVID-19 black market on the dark web, the shadowy counterpart to the internet where illegal goods are advertised and sold, researchers say.

Medical masks and other personal protective equipment, ventilators that hospitals badly need, and a bizarre assortment of supposed vaccines and blood-related items line the virtual shelves of underground forums, researchers’ show in three recent reports. 

“This is the digital equivalent of walking down the very dark alley in your city where drugs and guns are sold and other illegal activities occur,” says Mark Turnage, CEO of the cybersecurity firm DarkOwl, which searches and analyzes dark web content to help companies and law enforcement. “We are seeing a broad spectrum of criminals, from naïve dark net users to sophisticated attackers who are leveraging the virus in heinous ways.” In its report, DarkOwl found listings of supposedly infected blood for sale, with sellers suggesting it could be used to infect the buyer’s enemies. 

Sixgill, an Israel-based cybersecurity firm, found nearly 2,000 listings of medical masks for sale in one popular dark web marketplace. “Medical equipment is in incredibly high demand,” says Dov Lerner, Sixgill’s research lead for their report. The masks are often listed in lots of hundreds or thousands, he said, and at a high premium. 

A panoply of fake vaccines and bizarre products supposedly for sale are often just scams to take the buyer’s money, says IntSights, a New York firm that helps companies look for threats on the dark web to stop attacks before they happen. “The limited availability of coronavirus testing – especially in countries like the United States – leads to demand for” test kits and vaccines, IntSights says in its report. IntSights also found templates for ransomware and other crimes on the dark web that invoke the virus to frighten victims.    

Researchers say monitoring the dark web provides important insight into crime with a dangerous impact. DarkOwl, for instance, found that after President Trump suggested anti-malarial drugs may have potential use in fighting COVID-19, scammers have also started offering these drugs for sale on the dark web. An Arizona man died after taking the wrong kind of chloroquine. 

“There are a lot of things that are sold on the darknet,” says DarkOwl CEO Turnage. “If you don’t monitor it, you can’t protect people.”

Here are nine examples of dark web items for sale and discussions among criminals related to COVID-19. 

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