Imagine that you're a vendor on Evolution, Agora, or another of the Amazon-like underground emporiums modeled on the now-defunct Silk Road.
Buyers send you payments in Bitcoin, the digital currency that approximates cash on the internet, along with their encrypted mailing addresses, and in return you ship them parcels of methamphetamine, designer psychedelics, or even home-roasted coffee.
Following me so far? Now imagine that you want to to quit. Maybe you suspect you're under investigation, or your friends are getting suspicious, or the anxiety associated with your startup criminal enterprise has become too much. So you sell the last of your drugs, reformat your hard drives, and shut down your vendor accounts on the darknet sites where you used to sell.
Or do you?
It turns out that a logistical problem with darknet markets is that when a vendor throws in the towel, it's very tempting for him or her to stop mailing drugs, but continue pocketing customers' payments for as long as possible.
By online consensus, the phenomenon even has a name: an "exit scam."
If you've built up a good reputation on a darknet market's seller rating system—which, like eBay, is based on feedback from other users—why not keep pulling in cash until the review system catches up with you?
"I am sorry guys but I have scammed you."
Darknet vendors tend to disappear completely after defrauding buyers, which was why it was so remarkable that one exit scammer recently published a seemingly remorseful confession before disappearing for good.
"9THWonder" had built up a good reputation selling marijuana and hashish on the Evolution market. But last month, the seller decided to rip off customers and skip town.
"I am sorry guys but I have scammed you," 9THWonder wrote in the note, which has been reproduced here. "I am not going to try to justify it with my reasons, I am just a terrible person. I am sorry for each and every person affected, I am ashamed about the way I have deceived so many people for my own personal gain. For what it is worth the money is not going to stupid lifestyle enriching purposes. Even though I could likely go on for a few more days, making fake promises and feedback I have reached my goal and will lock myself out of my account."
The scam had started, 9THWonder said, almost two weeks before. Since then, according to the note, he or she had been accepting payments even though there was nothing in stock.
Exit scams, according to pseudonymous darknet researcher Gwern, "are hard to say anything precise on by their nature." That's true for a few reasons. Buyers are the only ones who know for certain whether they received an order, and so sometimes report having been scammed when there was just a delivery problem. The markets themselves—which have no interest in publicizing their own downsides—typically hide the profile and feedback associated with banned sellers.
But while it's tough to say precisely how common exit scams are, they do appear to happen from time to time—and contribute to the sense of tin hat paranoia that often permeates the conversation on darknet market forums.
To avoid exit scams, Gwern says, buyers can choose to only deal with buyers who use escrow, meaning the market will hold onto the payment until the buyer confirms that the order has been received.
"You very rarely hear of exit scams from escrow users," Gwern said. "Some selective scamming and feedback stuffing, but nothing like exit scams."
That's trickier than it sounds, though: many darknet vendors insist on receiving their cash before they ship, a practice known as "finalizing early," or "FE," in the darknet's emerging slang.
9THWonder's confession was posted just a week before the start of the trial of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged mastermind of the prototypical darknet market Silk Road, which was shut down in a 2013 raid by the DEA and the FBI. The evidence presented in the trial has painted a melodrama of finger pointing, addiction and blackmail in which, among other allegations, the Silk Road administrator seemingly tried to hire the Hell's Angels to carry out multiple contract killings.
As much as anything, though, the ongoing trial—in which Ulbricht's attorney Joshua Dratel has argued that his client founded Silk Road but quickly handed it off to another operator—has underscored the pivotal weirdness of deep web commerce, a truly laissez-faire space where opaque supply chains and near-perfect anonymity make it easy to subvert the law, but difficult to demand accountability.
It's also a reminder that if anonymity fails, consequences on the darknet can be as real as offline drug-related violence. On Reddit, reactions to 9THWonder's confession ranged from shock and commiseration to outright threats: "Anybody up for joining up in going round to see this guy?" asked one user. "Was one of the ones ripped off and believe I have an address for him."