The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The not-so-secret place on the Web that sells drugs, uranium and a guide to texting girls

Evolution market

On a well-hidden corner of the Internet, a user going by the name of "FRIM" has a question: "Ever wanted to start your own reactor or build nukes? Well, this is probably the only missing component you needed and couldn't get until now!" The "missing component" FRIM promises is a small quantity of uranium ore -- on sale for 0.2549 Bitcoins, or about $100.

FRIM is selling uranium on Evolution, which is currently the largest of the so-called "darknet" marketplaces on the Internet, where enterprising vendors offer everything from drugs to weapons to stolen credit card numbers. The markets tend to have a short shelf-life, and the first and most well-known, Silk Road, was shut down nearly a year ago by the FBI. Its successor, Silk Road 2.0, was seized just last month.

FRIM knows this. "Who knows how long Evolution will last?" he/she asks at the end of the uranium listing. "That's why you need to order lots of Uranium now so you don't miss out on your dreams to threaten the U.N. with nukes in your life time ;)"

For the uninitiated, it can be hard to find Evolution. You have to use a specialized Web browser, called Tor, which bounces your traffic across dozens of computers around the world. You then have to do a bit of Googling to find Evolution's address -- a string of random characters followed by .onion, rather than .net or .com.

But once there, illicit commerce is as almost easy as ordering from Amazon or eBay -- and many of the items for sale aren't illicit at all, but simply weird, spammy, or not quite what they seem. FRIM's uranium, as it turns out, is just a tiny piece of ore. You can buy ones just like it on Amazon for only $39.95, a fraction of FRIM's price. They're often used to calibrate geiger counters.

The world of the darknet, including its dozens of online markets, in many ways fails to live up to the terrifying reputation bestowed upon the sites by law enforcement officials -- the FBI called them "noxious online criminal bazaars." While darknet gained notoriety as a place to buy drugs and is a reservoir of information that could be used for illegal activity like identity fraud, there are a lot of other goods for sale in the bazaars as well. Some are illegal, but many are not.

I wanted to quantify just what, exactly, the darknet was offering. Once I logged into Evolution -- the hardest part of which was typing in the Captcha code that the site uses to prevent spambots from trawling it -- I took a tally of all 22,000 items listed for sale as of Nov. 17.

I was immediately struck by how much Evolution looks and feels like every other e-commerce site I've ever used. The site is mobile-friendly, and it has a support page, a community forum and a wiki. A menu on the home page lists all the categories, as well as the number of items in each category for sale.

On Evolution, you can either search for specific things, or drill down through the menu to find what you're looking for. You can filter your search results, sort by price, popularity and user reviews. You can skip straight to the big red "But It Now" button.

Transactions are conducted in Bitcoins (BTC), the online cryptocurrency. Items are shipped straight to your door, via the postal service, U.P.S. or Fedex. Buyers and sellers place a high premium on "stealth," measures taken to conceal contraband goods in clever packaging. They are scrupulous about not discussing the specifics of these measures online -- for fear of tipping off law enforcement. They have the option to use Evolution's escrow service, in which the site holds payments until both buyer and seller agree the transaction has been completed.

More than 12,000 drugs for sale

Here's what the main page for drugs looks like -- featuring 3,064 listings for cannabis, 2,177 for ecstasy, and 1,125 for psychedelics.

Buyers can submit reviews of vendors and individual items. As one reviewer said of a popular listing for one ounce of "Blue Dream" marijuana: "very clean and potent weed, smell is sensational, 28 grams on scale ;)" And as it turns out, the user reviews are a big part of the darknet's allure. Buyers use them to rate the quality and purity of the drugs they purchase.

Similar to eBay, sellers are heavily invested in keeping their review scores positive, and tend to place a high premium on customer service -- a lot more than you might get down at the street corner. The "Blue Dream" weed is currently the most popular item on the site, with over 2,800 reviews. The seller, "TopShelf420," has a 99.9 percent positive feedback rating.

On Evolution, drug listings account for about 54 percent of all items sold. Within the "drugs" category, marijuana is by far the most popular item, accounting for a quarter of all listings. Ecstasy and stimulants, like cocaine and speed, show 2,000 and 1,800 listings, respectively.

There are 448 listings for heroin, and over a thousand for prescription pills, primarily painkillers and stimulants like adderall and ritalin. Psychedelics like LSD and shrooms are well-represented with over a thousand listings in total.

The interactive chart below shows all the drug-related subcategories, and the number of items listed in each.

A guidebook on how to text a girl

Far from the "wretched hive of scum and villainy" invoked by the darknet's critics in law enforcement and politics, however, you're likely to be most struck by the sheer banality of so much of the stuff on Evolution. There is an astonishingly high number of e-books and how-to's on everything from computer hacking to "how to get free pizza in the U.K."

Many are simple guides purporting to tell you how to convert a stolen credit card or other account into cash. One popular compilation of six "ATM hacking tutorials" claims "this guide teaches you how to withdraw $20 but you get $80," promising it is "a very simple process."

Wannabe Walter Whites can purchase "A Complete MDMA Synthesis For The First Time Chemist" for about $1.50.

A "Free Tutorial - How To Setup Computer" will set you back a dollar ("Now i have to charge $1 due to high demand," the seller apologizes).

That same dollar could also get you the "★ ★ ★ ESSENTIAL UNDERGROUND HANDBOOK OF SECRET INFORMATIONS★ ★ ★," which is "probably the most revolutionary ebook to be offered for sale anywhere in the world." The seller has a 99.2 percent positive rating, from sales of this and many other items.

With a little more money to burn, namely $5, you can buy "The Ultimate Guide to Texting Girls," which calls itself "the complete guide on initiating, responding and being the man girls want to text."

The reviews indicate that many people are buying these goods, and that they're generally satisfied with them.

A site for real financial fraud

The strange stuff aside, Evolution is still a place where a lot of illegal action likely takes place. The "Fraud Related" category is a big source of this, accounting for about 2,000 listings. In contrast to the guides and how-tos, many of these listings are born of crimes with actual victims. They purport to be batches of credit card numbers and associated information. It seems reasonable to assume that a fair share of credit card numbers that have been stolen in recent high-profile data breaches end up here.

This is what the average credit card listing looks like, though it's difficult to verify to what extent these represent actual working credit card numbers.

In the most popular credit card listing, a single credit card number with an expiration date, security code, full name and address costs about $8. The seller offers substantial discounts for bulk purchases. The listing has over 1,000 reviews, the vast majority of which are positive.

Other popular items in the fraud category include U.S. driver's licenses and Social Security numbers, at about $10 each. Passports are harder to come by, but digital photoshop templates of various countries' passports are plentiful. To get an actual U.S. passport you'd need to head over to the "Services" category, where you can buy one for about $6,000.

Buy 100 Facebook followers for two bucks

The services category also contains listings for Instagram and Facebook followers (100 for about $2 bucks). If you just need someone to talk to (and who among us doesn't?), you can hire user "HappyBirthday2U" for about $40.

In addition to the guides there are a considerable number of e-book listings, many of them cover the same ground. But you can also purchase an annotated text of the Bill of Rights, a copy of the "Navy SEAL Physical Fitness Guide," and for about $4 you can learn "How to Start and Train a Militia Unit."

That this tutorial is priced less than the one about texting girls should tell you something about Evolution's customer base.

FRIM, the uranium merchant, also has a battle axe for sale.

One of the more interesting weapons listings when I visited was allegedly an unexploded World War I artillery shell.

There is a small but substantial market for "erotica" on Evolution, making the darknet one of the few places on the Internet where people are actually paying for porn.

Overall, aside from the drugs, there's a general spammy vibe underlying the Evolution market. Many of the goods for sale will be familiar to anyone who's spent time sifting through their junk email folder.

Much of the information, from guides and e-books, is available elsewhere on the web.

On the other hand, a substantial number of items for sale are completely legal, if a little unsavory. Indeed, the original Silk Road and its recently-seized successor had an explicit "do-no-harm" policy when it came to the items they sold. They didn't traffic in weapons, or stolen credit cards, or identity theft. And when it comes to the drugs, I (and many others) have made the argument that having these transactions take place online is safer than putting them on the street.

By shutting them down, the FBI may have unwittingly strengthened the hand of sites like Evolution, which are generally driven by an "anything goes" philosophy.

The total darknet economy, measured crudely in the number of items for sale on all sites, roughly doubled in the year after the FBI shut down the original Silk Road. Since it seized Silk Road 2.0 last month, Evolution and other markets have seen their listing numbers increase by thousands per week as vendors moved their wares to the new markets.

The FBI promises that they "will return as many times as necessary" to shut them down. But this means little more than a commitment to a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

A smarter law enforcement strategy might involve targeting the markets selling the more dangerous items, or specifically targeting the vendors selling these items. But this would require differentiating between the markets that espouse a radical "anything goes" philosophy, and those that are scrupulous about only fostering victimless crimes, like some of Evolution's smaller competitors.

But so far, it doesn't seem like either law enforcement or its supporters in Congress are making those distinctions.