I'm a tech journalist who used the dark web, here's what I saw

EXCLUSIVE: DailyMail.com’s tech correspondent spent a day on the Dark Web. From a hitman marketplace that boasted a ‘100% kill rate’ to identity theft for as little as $200 — this is his shocking account of what’s lurking on there

  •  Dark web marketplaces offer hacking tools, stolen cards and drugs
  • ‘Underbelly’ of the internet sees up to 5 percent of GDP laundered
  • READ MORE: I bought five items from the dark web, here’s what happened

The dark web is the notorious ‘hidden’ side of the internet – hosting websites that cannot be found on Google and can only be accessed via special browsers.

Identities and locations of darknet users stay anonymous and cannot be tracked due to layered encryption systems, making it a hotbed for criminals.

Last month the Department of Justice busted a major fraud network that sold access to over 80 million account access credentials, including usernames and passwords.

Many former and current hackers have shared horror stories about what they’ve found on the dark web in recent years. So this week, DailyMail.com decided to log on and see what is lurking on the darknet — and the results were shocking.

Hitman marketplaces selling murder-for-hire:  ‘Hitman’ websites had alleged killers offering to murder people for as little as $5,000, with one website describing itself as the ‘most reputable’ hitman website on the dark web

Other marketplaces sell meth in wholesale quantities. ‘The dark web is part of the internet which is accessible through software such as Tor, or The Onion Router,’ said Bischoff

Unlike the worldwide web, there are no publicly available links and you must know exactly where you are going.

So DailyMail.com recruited the help of a cyber security expert, Paul Bischoff, from the company Comparitech.

I first had to install Tor – short for The Onion Router – to my computer. Tor is a seething matrix of encrypted websites that allows users to surf beneath the everyday internet with complete anonymity.

From there, I went to a ‘clear web’ version of a popular ‘listings’ site for the dark web, which lists many of the illegal markets and sites available – and then to the dark web version of that site. 

I could follow links to other dark web markets and listings sites from there. Many markets have high levels of computer security, such as generating a password you can’t then reset.  

Browsing the dark web is a slightly nerve-wracking experience due to the abundance of highly unpleasant material on it – although generally speaking, the drug markets tend to shun more severe criminal material such as human trafficking. 

Within minutes we accessed sites openly selling thousands of stolen credit cards, hard drugs, ‘hacker services’ that will plant child abuse material on people’s computers to ‘ruin their lives’.

We also accessed ‘hitman’ websites where alleged killers offered ‘worldwide services’ to murder people for as little as $5,000.

One website described itself as the ‘most reputable’ hitman website on the dark web (it’s worth noting, however, that there have not been any cases where it’s been proven that a murderer was contracted via one of these sites). 

A step-by-step guide to fraud: The dark web sells guides on how to commit cybercrimes 

Fake ID is freely on sale: Visitors of the dark web appear to have access to sites that sell fake identification cards for any US state

Stolen PayPal accounts for sale in bulk, which has led to many recent cybercrimes. Bischoff said that while organizations, including the CIA have a presence on the dark web – as do some news organizations – he believes ‘most’ users use the hidden layer for illegal purposes 

Hard drugs are freely on sale for cryptocurrency: DailyMail.com accessed sites openly selling hard drugs that can be bought with cryptocurrency

On the dark web, ‘most’ sites are a scam, and you can’t believe anything you see, Bischoff warned – and if you find links on the ‘clear’ internet, they often guide you straight into the hands of scammers. 

Bischoff suggested a popular listing site as a jumping-off point for looking at dark web sites – which have a suffix .onion instead of .com and are not accessible through normal web browsers.

Bischoff said that while organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have a presence on the dark web – as do some news organizations – he believes ‘most’ users use the hidden layer for illegal purposes.

According to Cision, some estimates suggest that between two percent and five percent of global GDP is laundered via the dark web.

Several platforms offer access to the dark web, including i2p, FreeNet and Tor. One study estimated that there are around 2.6 million Tor daily users.

Peter Scully (left) is spending life in prison for abuse videos involving the torture of toddlers he released on the dark web. Josh Duggar allegedly downloaded a video made by Scully that shows an 18-month-old being tortured  and is now spending more than 12 years in jail

Sites allegedly offering contract killings are also rife on the third layer of the internet, with dark web drug dealer Ross Ulbricht (pictured) – currently serving life without parole – having allegedly solicited assassins for $730,000 in cryptocurrency

‘Somebody basically has to give you an invitation,’ Bischoff said. ‘They have to give you a specific address. You use the Tor browser to put in that address, and then go to that website.’

‘When you access that site, there’s no way to tell who owns and runs the website and there’s no way for the website operator to figure out who you are.’

I was able to browse through markets that had page after page of illegal drugs freely on sale. 

Others offered hacked accounts, bank accounts and ‘fraud kits’, which offered guides to how to steal online. 

What’s unsettling is how professional much of it seems – it’s as glossy and glitzy as the website for a furniture store or a High Street retailer, but what’s on sale is heroin, meth, and the proceeds of cybercrime.  

Notorious cases involving the dark web include Peter Scully, an Australian national jailed for life, plus another 129 years, in the Philippines for abuse videos involving the torture of toddlers, which were available on a pay-per-view basis on Tor sites.

 Scully released ‘Daisy’s Destruction’ on the dark web in 2012.

The vile one-hour-long footage shows an 18-month-old being sexually assaulted by three adults.

The footage was part of a case against Josh Duggar, a former reality TV personality from TLC’s ’19 Kid’s and Counting,’ in 2021 over child porn allegations.

James Fottrell, Director of the FBI’s High Tech Investigation Unit, used a series of screengrabs showing how Duggar, 33, had allegedly created a secret domain where he could access the dark web to hunt for files marked ‘Jailbait,’ ‘Pedo Mom’ and ‘Daisy’s Destruction.’

Duggar, convicted on child pornography charges in 2021, was sentenced to 12 years and eight months.

Trawling through darkweb markets and listings sites, there are pages of hackers offering their services for hire, as well as the ‘fruits’ of cybercrime – stolen cards, stolen accounts, stolen PayPal logins. 

Are the hackers who offer their services real – or will they just steal your money? It’s very hard to tell on the dark web. 

It’s common  for hackers to offer highly unpleasant services such as ‘destroying someone’s life’ or DDOS attacks (distributed denial of service) attacks which could, in theory, put a business’s website offline for weeks. 

Chillingly, all of these services are on offer for just a few hundred dollars.  

Hackers also offer their services to attack websites and blackmail people

Sites allegedly offering contract killings are also rife on the third layer of the internet, with dark web drug dealer Ross Ulbricht – currently serving life without parole – having allegedly solicited assassins for $730,000 in cryptocurrency.

I was a hacker for 30 years – here’s the scariest things I saw on the dark web 

The source, who has spoken anonymously, explained how hackers use ransomware to steal data for large payouts or ‘to just see the world burn’ and explained that any system connected to the web is at risk of an attack. 

There’s many sites – some convincing, some less so, but what’s slightly scary is that there are forum users and posters who clearly want them to be real, and are offering Bitcoin in exchange for crimes.  

Tor has been lauded by internet freedom advocates – and is financed by US federal agencies, as well as private donors and other agencies.

The browser has offered a way for bloggers in countries such as Egypt to get around internet censorship, the Tor project points out.

Tor works using a network of thousands of ‘nodes’ which bounce encrypted data around, meaning that it is difficult to see the data or who a user is.

‘It makes you completely untraceable. It’s almost impossible for anyone to trace your connections to the Tor network back to your computer, which makes it so powerful,’ Bischoff said.

Some commercial companies have a presence on the dark web for legitimate reasons relating to privacy. 

For example, VPN companies allow users to pay for a VPN using Bitcoin, so they don’t have to share personal details.

Bischoff said that organizations like Wikileaks also ‘have a good reason’ to be on the dark web, with people able to dump documents anonymously.

Much of the dark web is taken up with illegal markets, Bischoff said – the ‘lighter’ end of which deals in drugs such as heroin and meth, stolen credit card and bank account details and even guides on committing fraud.

I explored several of the most famous current markets – all the names were unfamiliar, as these markets tend to last for months or years, get busted by police, then disappear. 

But no sooner than they are gone, new markets reappear, and the same dealers flock to them offering extremely high-purity drugs. 

On some, there are reviews, much like on Amazon – and there are whole forums of posters discussing where to get the ‘best’ drugs. 

Drug dealers boast of the purity of their products – and their fast shipping times.  

Bank accounts on sale: ‘Criminals also openly sell stolen data on dark web sites,’ said Bischoff

‘Others offer violent services such as hitmen – or human trafficking, which is among the worst things on there,’ said Bischoff.

These markets only take payments in cryptocurrency because it’s more difficult to trace users than via credit cards.

On every market I visited, Bitcoin seemed to be the currency of choice, with other cryptocurrencies also used. 

To look at, it’s much like normal online shopping – except everything on sale is illegal.  

‘The thing that ties it all together is cryptocurrency because nothing really works without cryptocurrency,’ Bischoff said.

‘Criminals also openly sell stolen data on dark web sites. 

‘There are forums which are just like Reddit forums, where people go and post, ‘Here’s a bunch of data, here’s a sample, and if you want to buy it, here’s my information.’

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