Online Russian Drug Markets
The distribution and consumption of traditional drugs has become the subject of stringent legal sanctions throughout most of the world and, in turn, the online distribution of synthetic designer drugs have become a means of avoiding these penalties. Novel psychoactive substances, also called “legal highs”, have created new challenges for law enforcement to respond to, wherein such substances have been highly varied in terms of chemical composition as well have be advertised and distributed – as an alternative to traditional drugs – in a space that is difficult to monitor: the Internet.
For this project, we downloaded and analyzed Russian-language online drug marketplaces that distributed traditional and novel psychoactive substances. These marketplaces used a noncontact drug dealing method, where the seller and the buyer communicated through the Internet to arrange for payment and delivery of drugs.
Project 1: Online Russian Drug Markets in the Public Web
Geographic information, price, amount, substance type and payment method data were extracted from 28 online Russian-language drug marketplaces in the public Web. Noncontact method of drug dealing employed by online marketplaces in the sample had two essential elements: the online storefront and an anonymous payment method. First, the online storefront – where drug advertisements were displayed – allowed clients to choose the desired product from the comfort of their own homes. Second, all marketplaces in the sample used one or both virtual currencies Qiwi and Bitcoin. Bitcoin is an obvious choice due to anonymity the cryptocurrency affords and it has been used on many illicit drug marketplaces. Qiwi, however, is marketed as an e-wallet for online payments and personal money transfers.
Preliminary results showed that the majority of online drug marketplaces employing a noncontact method of drug dealing had their websites designed largely the same way. Those sites included names in the same format, often using the same domain (e.g. bounty24.biz, bro24.biz, gost24.biz, etc.), as well as shared webpage designs and background images. Searches for “24 biz” were performed, resulting in 47 drug marketplace addresses. Only 28 out of 47 (59.5%) remained available and had postings displayed for a period of time long enough to download them. The online marketplaces contained 935 drug advertisements, with 839 postings for products with individual consumer doses between 0.3 and 10 grams, and 97 were pre-order and wholesale advertisements where the dose varied between 3 and 1,000 grams. The amount of drug postings per marketplace varied between 1 and 250, with 29 on average (see Figure 1).
In addition, the 28 marketplaces in our sample primarily sold amphetamine-type stimulants and synthetic cannabinoids, however natural cannabinoids and hallucinogens were also present. These marketplaces were oriented to the average consumer who purchased small amounts of drugs for personal use. Noncontact drug dealing method allowed vendors to sell their products through Internet sites without ever meeting with buyers, mutually decreasing risks and increasing convenience. This method of drug dealing was made possible due to illegal anonymous payments provided by two virtual currencies – Qiwi and Bitcoin. While Bitcoin is well-known for its criminal uses, Qiwi is a mainstream virtual currency marketed as a money transfer and online payment medium. This study raises questions about efforts on part of Qiwi to combat drug trafficking and subsequent money laundering with the use of their services.
Figure 1. Marketplace by Substance Type – Amphetamine-Type Stimulants (ATS)
Mikhaylov, A., & Frank, R. (2018). Illicit Payments for Illicit Goods: Noncontact Drug Distribution on Russian Online Drug Marketplaces. Global Crime.