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Record Number of Dark Markets Online as Demand for Illicit Goods and Services Continues to Grow

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The criminal environment of darknet markets is extremely turbulent. Numerous darknet markets are launched every year and just as many are constantly exiting, being seized, or otherwise going defunct. Despite this barrage, CipherTrace has noted more dark markets online than ever before.

CipherTrace researchers are currently monitoring over 35 active darknet markets. The newest darknet markets – both launched around early September – are Invictus Market and Lime Market. Lime Market, thought to be run by the former admins of DarkBay, appears to be a very small market and is not expected to become a very notable enterprise. Invictus Market, on the other hand, is run by the admins of the well-known Imperiya darknet service—an enterprise that creates and maintains darknet vendor shops for a modest fee. As the admins of Invictus already have a good reputation among the darknet community, it stood to see quick growth. However, while Invictus was able to gain close to 10,000 customer accounts in its first month, by the end of its second month of operation (October 20), Invictus’ customer base had barely surpassed 10,000 accounts, indicating its exponential growth appears to have slowed drastically.

Source: CipherTrace Cryptocurrency Intelligence

Three Tumultuous Exit Scams

Empire Market was one of the largest, longest running and most successful darknet markets. Launched in February of 2018, Empire rose to become the largest darknet market in the Western world during its time. However, by late August 2020 the dark market pivoted and exit scammed—a scheme where a dark market or fraudulent exchange ceases operation and steals all the funds in escrow and account wallets. An exiting market will either abruptly shut down or remain online with escrow payouts and withdrawals disabled, but deposits still enabled, allowing the scammers to net more funds until users catch on.

Following Empire’s exit, its vendors and customers had to move to a new market, leading to a large influx of new users on all other open darknet markets.

On September 10—less than three weeks after Empire’s exit—Icarus Market also went offline. The site never came back up, taking all their vendors’ and customers’ funds with them . Icarus had been pushing high effort updates soon before the exit, leading CipherTrace analysts to believe that the exit likely wasn’t planned. Rather, it’s probable that the large influx of new users from Empire and their deposits made Icarus ripe for a profitable exit. As a result, the admins may have taken advantage of the opportunity and exited sooner than they had originally planned.

Sometime around October 12, DeepSea market also abruptly went offline. After just a few days with no word from market admins, users and one DeepSea forum moderator concluded that the market had exit scammed. As of the writing of this report, it has been one week since the market went offline. It is possible—but unlikely—that the market will return. It could have been seized instead of exit scammed, but law enforcement has yet to announce the seizure. If the market doesn’t return and law enforcement don’t announce a seizure, it can be concluded that DeapSea has exit scammed.

White House Market, due to its good reputation among darknet users, will take some traffic from these exits and has the potential to be the next biggest market. However, White House Market’s high security requirements tends to turn the average dark market user away. It is more likely that DarkMarket will take much of the traffic from the Empire, Icarus, and DeepSea exit scams.

As it stands, DarkMarket and White House Market appear to be the largest darknet markets in the Western world with over 300,000 customer accounts each. White House Market saw a 40% increase in users between August 27 and September 28, following the exit scam of Icarus, and a further 8-10% increase between late September and October 20. The next most notable darknet markets currently active are Versus Market, Monopoly Market, ToRReZ Market, and of course the Russian darknet behemoth—Hydra—which has been active since 2015 and is likely the largest darknet market in the world.

Why So Many Dark Markets Come and Go

Creating a darknet market requires little upfront cost, and the potential rewards can be high—Empire market admins, for example, reportedly profited around $30 million from their exit scam alone, not including the money they made in the two years of their operation. Evolution market exited with $12 million in user bitcoin. This results in numerous darknet markets launching every year. According to CipherTrace research, there has been at least one notable darknet market launched every month on average since early 2019.

However, darknet markets go as quickly as they come. The eventual fate of all darknet markets is to be seized, to be hacked, to exit scam, or to voluntarily shut down. It’s most likely that the majority of darknet markets plan to exit scam from their inception, especially as a plan B if things go sideways.

Operating a darknet market is risky. Market operators have a long list of adversaries. Law enforcement is the most obvious, powerful, and dangerous adversary of a darknet market. If a market runs for long enough, it’s likely to be seized and its operators arrested. Ten years ago, the first dark market, The Farmers Market, appeared on the Tor network; eight years ago its eight founders were arrested, seven pled guilty and the leader was convicted to 10 years in prison for selling narcotics and laundering money. Ross Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts, allegedly operated Silk Road—the first large scale dark market with over 100,000 customers. Ulbricht was also charged with a murder for hire plot and was sentenced to a double life sentence plus forty years without the possibility of parole. Ulbricht built this black market bazaar to exploit the dark web and the digital currency Bitcoin to allow users to conduct illegal business beyond the reach of law enforcement. According to the DOJ “Ulbricht’s arrest and conviction – and our seizure of millions of dollars of Silk Road Bitcoins – should send a clear message to anyone else attempting to operate an online criminal enterprise. The supposed anonymity of the dark web is not a protective shield from arrest and prosecution.

Figure 1: Silk Road was a wakeup call to law enforcement globally to the criminal potential of cryptocurrencies. (DOJ Exhibit 113 A, entered into evidence at Ulbricht’s trial)

Darknet markets are also under constant threat of being hacked by adversaries who want to steal funds from a market’s hot wallet, extort the admins, or conduct an attack that might lead to a profit. Furthermore, darknet markets are constantly receiving Denial of Service (DoS) attacks. DoS attacks on a market might be conducted by an individual demanding ransom, by admins of a competing market who want to diminish competition, or even by law enforcement who want to destabilize these criminal enterprises.

Even if a market intends to be around forever and manages to avoid being seized or hacked, there is always the chance of either a slip up in their operational security or an attack that poses too great a threat to the admins that they’re forced to execute their plan B: an exit scam. By conducting an exit scam, the admins of a darknet market are able to solve their problem while making a substantial profit.

The Ease of Creating a Dark Market

The ease of creating a dark market adds to its lucrative appeal, particularly if one intends to exit scam. While the biggest hurdle to operating a dark market was once the issue of gaining the trust of vendors and customers to use your site, the barrage of seizures and exits leaves many bouncing to and from one dark market to the next.

There are many ways criminals can quickly produce dark markets, with the easiest being to simply buy a pre-built marketplace template—all the customer has to do is replace any place-holder text and install the software to their servers. This method was used by the popular dark market “DarkMarket.” The current price for a standard, pre-built marketplace kit that accepts BTC and Monero is only $599 in BTC. Support for additional coins range from $50-$90 per coin. This upfront cost is minuscule when compared to the profits of many of the established exit scams.

The ease of creating your own dark market, coupled with the profitability of exit scamming and constant demand shown by the volume of customer accounts on these marketplaces culminate in a record number of dark markets now online. It is likely that this number will only grow in the future, however, the use of blockchain analytics such as CipherTrace can ensure that the funds originating from any of these dark markets are identified the moment they are moved to fiat off-ramps such as exchanges.

Source: https://ciphertrace.com/record-number-of-dark-markets-online-as-demand-for-illicit-goods-and-services-continues-to-grow/

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Venezuelan Health Workers Receive USDC as Aid from US

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Despite frustrations caused by the disputed 2019 Presidential election in Venezeula, healthcare workers are getting financial aid, thanks to Crypto.

Airtm, a Latin American crypto exchange, is working with Circle and the US government to dispatch much needed aid to first line workers in Venezuela. This aid distribution has some complicated politics behind it, but the usefulness of the technology is clear.

Dos Presidentes

Venezuela has seen a difficult political reality recently, with two different men claiming the presidency as their own. Nicolás Maduro became the country’s leader in the wake of Hugo Chavez’s death from cancer in 2013. In 2019, a disputed election led to another man, Juan Guaidó, claiming to be the country’s leader.

While Guaidó says his legitimacy stems from his role as head of the National Assembly, Maduro disputes this. The current US administration has been warm to Guaidó as well.

It has also accused Maduro of drug trafficking and President Trump even offered a $15 million reward for Maduro’s arrest.

Despite these tensions amid politicians, Maduro remains in power and in the presidential palace, with the military, allies, and the state-run oil company backing him.

Over 50 countries now recognize Guaidó as President of Venezeula. In turn, Maduro limited Guaidó’s access to funds. Nonetheless, Guaidó maintains he is the true president. And it is through him that aid is meant to be distributed. Unfortunately for Guaidó, he has no control over Venezuela’s treasury.

The Work Around

But there indeed exists a way for Guaidó to get money. Circle, the company which runs the USDC stablecoin, has earmarked Venezeulan funds for healthcare workers. The country, hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, has also seen a dearth of supplies and runaway inflation. Workers have few sources of income.

In a post on its website, Circle briefly explained how the system of distributing aid works. The US Federal Reserve and Treasury will take funds that had previously been seized from Maduro’s government and transfer them to Guaidó via a US bank.

With US dollars virtually in hand, but several borders away, Guaidó will be able to mint USDC and send it to the Airtm exchange. From there, Venezuelan health care workers can claim their funds as “AirUSD”. This stablecoin will be available for withdrawal to the recipients.

Picking Favorites

The move, Circle seems to admit, is a way of bypassing Maduro’s regime, which controls banks in the socialist country. Circle is framing the move as a way to reward workers risking their lives in the hard-hit nation. The aid is said to number in the millions of dollars.

Jeremy Alliare, co-founder of circle, touted this use case of cryptocurrencies on Twitter. Hasu, a crypto researcher, replied that the US sending funds to other countries via crypto is both, “Impressive and scary.”

In 2019, Washington broke ties with Maduro’s government after calling the presidential elections there “fraudulent”. On Nov 19, 2020, the US decided to send its first ambassador in a decade to the South American nation.

After president-elect Joe Biden’s win on Nov 9, 2020, Maduro told the media he wished to resume a “decent” dialogue with the US.

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Harry Leeds is a writer, editor, and journalist who spent much time in the former USSR covering food, cryptocurrencies, and healthcare. He also translates poetry and edits the literary magazine mumbermag.me.

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Source: https://beincrypto.com/venezuelan-health-workers-receive-usdc-as-aid-from-us/

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South African Regulator Gets Tough in Sweeping Policy Proposal

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The South African Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) has unveiled a draft cryptocurrency regulation policy framework. This proposal aims to bring all crypto trading and investment activities in the country under its close supervision. Under the policy revealed to the public on Nov 20, all crypto exchanges must receive FSCA authorisation to act as financial services providers.

The proposal uses South Africa’s Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services (FAIS) Act 2002 for its basis. The new policy classifies crypto assets as financial products. This classification brings all crypto investment, trading and advisory services under the FCA’s regulatory jurisdiction. The move is a departure from the country’s erstwhile soft touch regulatory approach to crypto.

New South African Regulations Explained

Under the new rules, South Africa’s previously unregulated crypto economy is now expressly classified as part of the financial services sector. All providers must demonstrate the same fiduciary capacity as traditional financial institutions.

While bringing crypto trading and investment under the FSCA, the new regulations do not mean that cryptocurrency is recognised as money in South Africa. According to the FSCA’s supporting statement in the policy proposal, the regulations aim to stem the tide of cryptocurrency scams which have swept through the country over the past three years.

In fact, the FSCA’s director of investigations and enforcement Brandon Topham was quoted in Business Insider saying that in his opinion crypto is “highly suspect and nobody should be invested in anything form of cryptocurrency or any of the products that go with it”.

An excerpt from the document reads:

The Declaration in no way legitimises or gives credence to crypto assets, but is merely attempting to regulate intermediaries that are selling and advising customers to invest in crypto assets. It is envisaged that this will either result in customers making more informed decisions when purchasing crypto assets or potentially in a decline in intermediaries attempting to advise on and/or sell crypto assets. It will also reduce instances of fraudulent activity where players purport to be selling investments in crypto assets but are in reality absconding with customer
funds.

Implications Of New Regulations

The new regulations will mandate all exchange platforms, advisors and brokers involved in the crypto space to certify themselves under the FSCA’s standards. They will have to prove that they have the relevant qualifications, capacity, experience and knowledge, as well as pass a personal character evaluation.

Crypto trading and investment activities will also require a financial services provider license. Failure to obtain this license could lead to jail time. Brokers and other intermediaries offering crypto investment are required to justify any decision to recommend a crypto investment to their clients.

Explaining this decision, the statement reads in part:

[This] will result in improved disclosures to customers that more effectively highlight the high risks involved in investing in crypto assets and should also ensure that a more robust advice process is adopted (including proper risk assessments) when intermediaries decide to advise customers to purchase crypto asset.

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David is a journalist, writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared on CNN, The Africa Report, The New Yorker Magazine and The Washington Post. His work as a satirist on ‘The Other News,’ Nigeria’s answer to The Daily Show has featured in the New Yorker Magazine and in the Netflix documentary ‘Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy.’ In 2018, he was nominated by the US State Department for the 2019 Edward Murrow program for journalists under the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP). He tweets at @DavidHundeyin

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Source: https://beincrypto.com/south-africa-financial-regulator-goes-tough-on-crypto-in-sweeping-policy-proposal/

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Bitcoin Chases JP Morgan to Top World Bank

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On Nov 20, 2020, the market cap of Bitcoin rose above the market cap of JP Morgan Chase, the world’s largest public bank. Though it dropped back to number two on Nov 21, BTC’s quiet rise has enraptured the financial world.

JP Morgan v Bitcoin

JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has had a complicated relationship with Bitcoin. Since 2017, when Dimon claimed that Bitcoin was a fraud, much has changed at JP Morgan.

More recently, JP Morgan launched its own cryptocurrency and invested in ConsenSys. Though Dimon proclaimed on Nov 18, 2020 that Bitcoin is still, “not my cup of tea,” Bitcoin parried with its massive rise to near all time highs. Bitcoin, which itself is flirting not only with all time highs, but also with highest monthly closes, briefly overtook JP Morgan by market capitalization.

JP Morgan is America’s largest bank, rivaled by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in size. With a market cap of about $350 billion, JPMorgan is #17 of the Fortune 500 list of the largest US companies, just ahead of General Motors.

So when the market capitalization of Bitcoin surpassed JP Morgan at about $351 billion this weekend, it turned some heads. Bitcoin seems to be getting unprecedented interest from large wall street players and banks.

Crypto is FUNdamnetal

At the same time, the current crypto bull-run has arguably more fundamentals behind it than the one in 2017. The industry is more solid, the security more proven, the companies more transparent, and the backers better-known.

There are a few of possibilities fueling this current bull run. One theory is the growing understanding of Bitcoin as a replacement for gold. With the potential for huge post-stimulus inflation, US companies are seeking assets that will hold their own against rising prices.

Another possibility is the future of Bitcoin in the eyes of the law. In the United States, outgoing SEC Chairman Jay Clayton has clarified that Bitcoin is a store of value and not a security, a status that could make it more attractive to tax-conscious companies.

While this does not make Bitcoin an official “bank”, the cryptocurrency is still a financial instrument with more value parked in it than almost anything aside from gold.

With DeFi making an unbanked world a real possibility, cryptocurrencies continue to hold their own against traditional financial systems.

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Harry Leeds is a writer, editor, and journalist who spent much time in the former USSR covering food, cryptocurrencies, and healthcare. He also translates poetry and edits the literary magazine mumbermag.me.

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Source: https://beincrypto.com/bitcoin-chases-jp-morgan-to-top-world-bank/

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Ethereum Classic Users to Access Ethereum with WETC

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Ethereum Classic Labs (ECL) announced the launch of Wrapped ETC (WETC), a token that connects Ethereum Classic (ETC) users to Ethereum. The company stated that WETC uses a bridging mechanism that effectively makes ETC interoperable on Ethereum. ECL made the move to give ETC users access to the large DeFi pool in Ethereum.

The launch of WETC follows the recent launch of the DAI-ETC bridge. This bridge gave ETC users access to the Ethereum-based stablecoin DAI. It also follows the same cross-chain bridging template developed by ChainSafe Systems.

ETC-ETH Bridging Template for WETC

According to ETC Labs, the cross-chain solution uses ChainBridge, a decentralised application developed by ChainSafe Systems. ChainBridge is a smart contract interface across the ETC and ETH blockchains. It mints and burns WETC tokens on the Ethereum blockchain to equal the ETC transferred into or withdrawn from the smart contract.

WETC tokens are compatible with all wallets that use the ERC-20 standard. Like other ERC-20 tokens, WETC works with all Ethereum DeFi-based exchanges, lending platforms, betting platforms and gaming platforms.

Explaining the necessity behind giving ETC users access to Ethereum DeFi protocols, ETC Labs founder and chairman James Wo said:

The realities of a global pandemic and economic crisis are cementing DeFi as an integral piece of the rapidly-expanding digital economy. Especially where access to financial services like trading, savings, lending, and borrowing are inaccessible due to distance or inability to set up a bank account, DeFi will be an increasingly important force for positive change.

ETC on ETH Blockchain – A Growing Phenomenon

Theoretically, Ethereum is a fork of Ethereum Classic following the DAO hack in Mar 2016. This should make the blockchains rivals. However, in October, ETC Labs announced the launch of the DAI-ETC bridge. This bridge enables ETC users to use their tokens on the Ethereum-based MakerDAO protocol. Like WETC, the ETC-DAI Bridge uses the ChainBridge smart contract interface to make the blockchains interoperable.

Some believe that the moves are effectively a concession to Ethereum’s place in the battle for DeFi supremacy. ETC Labs itself admits that there is a need to make the Ethereum ecosystem accessible to ETC. This is because Ethereum currently hosts the vast majority of DeFi protocols. A quote from the company reads:

Decentralized Finance (DeFi) has grown to over half a million users, with over $13 billion USD locked into DeFi protocols. Given the vast majority of DeFi protocols are based on Ethereum, WETC will provide ETC users an easy way to access DeFi on the Ethereum blockchain.

According to the company, efforts are currently underway to get WETC listed on exchanges.

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David is a journalist, writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared on CNN, The Africa Report, The New Yorker Magazine and The Washington Post. His work as a satirist on ‘The Other News,’ Nigeria’s answer to The Daily Show has featured in the New Yorker Magazine and in the Netflix documentary ‘Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy.’ In 2018, he was nominated by the US State Department for the 2019 Edward Murrow program for journalists under the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP). He tweets at @DavidHundeyin

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Source: https://beincrypto.com/ethereum-classic-users-to-access-ethereum-with-wetc/

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