How the dark web is handling the coronavirus pandemic

Many on the dark web are expressing the same thoughts and fears about COVID-19 as everyone else, while others are looking for ways to profit from it, says Trustwave.

What is the Dark Web, and why is it so bad if your information is there?
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We think of the dark web as an underground marketplace where cybercriminals buy and sell malicious tools and stolen information to scam innocent victims. But behind these shadowy figures are real people just as affected and concerned by world problems as the rest of us. Of course, these people also exhibit some of the worst qualities of humanity by their need to exploit anything and anyone for a buck. A blog post published Tuesday by security firm Trustwave reveals the scope of reactions to COVID-19 on the dark web.

SEE: Security Awareness and Training policy (TechRepublic Premium) 

Since the arrival of the coronavirus, people on the dark web have been sharing news, information, and concerns via underground communities. In one example, a news board with a thread dedicated to COVID-19 provides links to stories on the virus and its effect across the world.

In another example, a member of an underground forum expresses fears because of a slight cough and stuffy nose. In a third case, someone relates a concern about fake news spreading across Facebook and WhatsApp claiming that the Irish government is shutting down the country.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

However, for every glimmer of a genuine and relatable fear or concern, there are also the signs of greed and indifference from those eager to exploit the virus. In one example found by Trustwave, underground markets are selling N95 masks, other "corona protection masks," and disinfection solutions. One such seller is trying to convince potential customers that these aren't fake or stolen items as the price ranges from a couple of dollars to $10 for each mask.

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Image: Trustwave

Practitioners on the dark web also are more than willing to use conspiracy theories and fake news to sell products. In these cases, underground sellers serve up stories about a COVID-19 vaccine. Asserting that the public is being lied to and that a vaccine actually exists, one seller naturally claims he has it and is selling it for only $5,000 because he wanted to put a fair price on it.

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Image: Trustwave

Some dark web stores even try to practice a type of customer service. One seller is telling buyers to expect delays in shipping due to the virus and then urges everyone to stay safe and wash their hands. Another cautions customers who are drug and alcohol abusers to stock up on supplies but prepare for involuntary withdrawal.

SEE: The Dark Web: A guide for business professionals (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Beyond trading in malware and cyberthreats, the dark web is home to money laundering and credit card theft. In one example, some money laundering outfits are warning customers of changes on trading platforms and a decline in the circulation of goods around the world. In another example, one seller complains of a chaotic week in underground markets as stolen credit card shops have trouble finding fresh data, leading sellers to cross-post the same cards to multiple shops.

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Image: Trustwave

Still, some of those on the dark web do seemingly have reservations about the exploitation of the coronavirus. In one underground forum, a person asks others how they feel about those who earn money through the coronavirus panic by phishing. In response, two people express negative feelings about such scammers.

With many dark web players taking advantage of COVID-19, how can people protect themselves against these types of scams?

"Given that we're already seeing a rise in a variety of malicious campaigns worldwide it's important for us all to follow not only (the World Health Organization) WHO's recommendations for our health, but also online hygiene," Trustwave said in its blog post. "Beyond the usual advice of paying attention to suspicious emails, attachments, and URLs, it's important that we remember to look at information posted online with a critical eye. Look for updates provided through official sources, visit websites directly to find what their services are doing in regard to COVID-19, and, as we often repeat: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is."

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Image: Hanna Ferentc, Getty Images/iStockphoto