Drop in Darknet Market Sales Suggests Recent Small Takedown Shook the Wider Ecosystem
In May 2023, Europol announced the seizure of the dark web marketplace (DNM) “Monopoly Market” in a coordinated action involving law enforcement organizations from nine countries.
Monopoly Market was a relatively small player in the western DNM ecosystem, with around 1,200 listings and a total sales volume of some USD 1.6 million since its founding in 2019 (ASAP Market, the largest Western DNM, has 100 times more listings and posted total sales of USD 82.5 million). Yet Operation SpecTor reportedly resulted in nearly 300 arrests and the seizure of over USD 50 million in cash and virtual currency, together with 850 kg of drugs and 117 firearms.
What’s more, analysis by TRM Labs has found that the volume of deposits made to Western DNMs per week fell sharply in the weeks following the announcement of Monopoly Market’s seizure – by about one third. The value of deposits (or incoming transfers to the DNM) fell by roughly a quarter.
How could the removal of one relatively obscure player have had such an outsized impact on the wider Western DNM landscape?
One explanation for this apparent ripple effect is that because Western DNMs do not usually bar vendors from selling on multiple marketplaces, they tend to be active across multiple platforms at once. This allows vendors to build a steady, multi-source income stream and hedge against the risk of any one DNM disappearing due to an exit scam or law enforcement seizure. Because some vendors caught operating on Monopoly Market were also likely to have been active on other DNMs, its takedown resulted in sales and volume declines far beyond the seized marketplace.
Stealth also likely played an important role. Nearly 16 months passed between when Monopoly Market first went offline in December 2021 and Europol’s acknowledgement of its takedown in April 2023. During that time, law enforcement will have had ample time to analyse the seized data for detailed intelligence on the market’s vendors and customers without arousing suspicion.
Although uncommon, this seizure-by-stealth approach has a successful track record. In 2017, US and European law enforcement seized two large DNMs – AlphaBay and Hansa Market - without making any announcement at the time. Unbeknownst to its users, Hansa Market was then kept online for nearly a month by the Netherlands’ National High Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU), during which time the agency monitored some 1,000 daily transactions and collected 10,000 customer postal addresses.
It is too early to tell whether Operation SpecTor will leave a lasting impact on the Western darknet marketplace ecosystem. DNMs have proven to be highly resilient organisms in the face of law enforcement action and it is likely that deposits and sales volumes will eventually recover. Nevertheless, Operation SpecTor’s outsized impact, if only in the short term, suggests that significant results can still be achieved even in targeting relatively small market players.
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