COLUMBUS, Ohio – In the darkened back alleys of the internet, enough cash can get you nearly anything.
For those seeking drugs, cost isn’t much of an issue, but trust is.
A new study from The Ohio State University finds that on “darknet” drug markets (accessible only through anonymity-protecting software such as Tor) the most important thing for buyers is finding sellers in whom they can place their confidence.
“When opioid users are making that first purchase, price doesn’t matter at all,” says Scott Duxbury, the study’s lead author, in a university news release. “If they come back to buy again, price matters a little, but trust remains their primary concern.”
Researchers noted that the majority of buyers only made a single purchase. If these buyers were simply experimenting with one time drug use, they suggested this could be why price matters so little.
For the smaller group of people making more than one purchase, less than a third of them sought out a different vendor for repeat buys.
With the reputation of buyers and sellers visible to everyone, researchers suggested the drug markets have the potential to be easily disrupted by leaving negative reviews of the most trusted sellers.
“If you eliminate several large sellers, all their buyers are stranded without a seller on the market that they have used before,” says Duxbury.
Still, there remains a core group of repeat buyers with connections to multiple sellers. These experienced buyers would be harder to disrupt the researchers said.
The study comes on the heels of the recent shutdown of two of the largest darknet markets, Hansa and AlphaBay.
In an article on Vice’s Motherboard, it was noted that the shutdown of AlphaBay was the highest profile action “since the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the original Silk Road.” Silk Road was one of the first and best known darknet marketplaces for drugs and other illicit goods.
“This is likely one of the most important criminal investigations of the year – taking down the largest dark net marketplace in history,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said of the AlphaBay shutdown in a press conference last month. “…The dark net is not a place to hide.”
Despite the increased attention and shutdown of the two large markets, Duxbury says new drug trafficking sites were almost instantly set up to replace them. While the speed with which new sites are launched is a problem for law enforcement, he says that new sites are also likely the easiest to disrupt.
“If officials can find a way to flood a network with bad evaluations when it is first starting, that will make it difficult for buyers to make informed decisions. That could stop markets when they are just beginning,” he explains.
The researchers said they consider this and further studies especially important in light of the growing opioid abuse problem in the United States. The team at OSU said they are currently gathering data to understand how much darknet drug purchases are increasing as a result of the opioid abuse epidemic.