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'Darknet' sellers tout face masks for bitcoin, researchers say

Mon, 6th Apr 2020 15:31

* Darknet sellers offer N95 masks, sometimes at steep markup

* Govts are rushing to secure supply of protective gear

* Testing kits, malaria drugs also for sale -research

* Authenticity of items impossible to verify

By Tom Wilson

LONDON, April 6 (Reuters) - "Darknet" trading platforms
where contraband from drugs to stolen credit cards usually
change hands are offering face masks and other
coronavirus-related gear in return for bitcoin, researchers said
on Monday.

Sites indexing sellers from the United States to Europe and
Russia have appeared as demand for protective equipment soars
during the pandemic, research shared with Reuters by blockchain
analysis firm Elliptic https://www.elliptic.co/our-thinking/darknet-markets-coronavirus
showed.

Darknet markets are e-commerce sites designed to lie beyond
the reach of regular search engines. They are popular with
criminals, as buyers and sellers are largely untraceable and
payment is made anonymously in cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

Governments across the world are rushing to secure supplies
of masks and other protective gear to protect frontline medical
staff during the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected over a
million people and killed more than 68,000.

Competition over limited supplies of masks has turned even
the legitimate market into the "Wild West," European officials
have said.

A Reuters investigation last month found individual brokers
selling high-grade N95 masks at prices well beyond the
pre-crisis retail levels of about $1 each. The frenzy has eroded
standard quality controls, opening the market to an influx of
masks of uncertain origin and effectiveness.

On the darknet, a new search engine known as "Recon" has
over the past four weeks indexed listings of coronavirus-related
goods for sale on some major marketplaces, Elliptic said.

"These vendors are opportunistic, jumping on any opportunity
to supply goods that are difficult to obtain elsewhere,"
Elliptic said.

Hundreds of listings of the sought-after N95 masks have
recently appeared, the researchers said, with prices varying
wildly. Some darknet vendors are selling N95 masks for almost 9
euros each, while others are offering the same items in bulk for
as little as $1.50 each.

Sellers are also offering coronavirus testing kits, with one
post offering unspecified and unverified "COVID-19 test strips"
for over $90 each. Others are selling the malaria drug
chloroquine as a supposed cure for coronavirus, making reference
to claims by U.S. President Donald Trump over its potential.

While it is not possible to confirm whether such items are
genuine, Elliptic said, around two-thirds of sellers themselves
could be considered "authentic" given their user ratings and
large numbers of previous sales.

Over a third of those selling coronavirus-related items
usually focus on the sale of drugs or drug paraphernalia, while
45% sell fraud-related items such as hacking services or
counterfeit bank notes, Elliptic said.
(Reporting by Tom Wilson
Editing by David Holmes)

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