In the second half of the 2010s, several large dark web markets – such as Alphabay, Dream Market, and Hansa – were taken down. Fearing intervention from law enforcement or (exit) scams, many dark market users flocked to social media, particularly Telegram. In the Netherlands, this has led to the significant growth of various Telegram groups functioning as illicit marketplaces.
Telegram increased in popularity after Edward Snowden – a former contractor for the CIA and NSA who fled to Russia – pitched it as a champion of privacy. That popularity increased even more after Facebook acquired WhatsApp, the largest messenger app in the world. Many users feared their communication would end up in the hands of Western intelligence agencies.
Pavel Durov, the creator of Telegram as well as VKontakte, is a Russian national and this enforced the idea of a messenger app secure from Western authorities. However, Durov no longer lives in Russia, and Telegram has no servers, developers, companies, bank accounts, or offices in that nation. Furthermore, Telegram also uses end-to-end encryption, as does WhatsApp. Telegram has a specific messaging protocol called MTProto, but it is still a matter of debate whether it is truly more secure.
Nevertheless, criminals seem to prefer Telegram over WhatsApp and not just for the perceived security. Telegram does not (necessarily) require phone numbers to add users to your contact list. It is also generally easier to create large groups and channels.
Vast numbers of users
In the Netherlands, there are at least a hundred criminal marketplaces active on Telegram. One of the largest groups is called Handeljacht (t.me/handeljacht)– which roughly translates into ‘trade hunt’ – and has almost 11.000 users. Anyone can offer goods or services by placing a text message into the group. Buyers can approach sellers directly by sending them a private message.
The lingua franca is Dutch, although the use of English is common. Furthermore, there are plenty of foreigners active in the groups, particularly in the border region and Amsterdam. Many experienced sellers are using some form of menus, so possible buyers can see the available goods at a glance. Even though drugs make up the majority of the goods, many other products are available, such as untaxed cigarettes, counterfeit money, weapons, stolen goods, and gasoline.
Advantages and disadvantages
Both dark web markets and Telegram groups are expressions of illicit online trading. However, there are significant differences. The dark web allows more anonymity and purchased goods will be delivered to an address of your choice. Buying goods on Telegram mostly include physical contact with the seller.
All dark web marketplaces use rating systems based on consumer reviews. There is no such thing on Telegram, so choosing a seller may require a developed gut feeling and word-of-mouth advertising. Some sellers on Telegram do send the goods through the mail, but the lack of a rating system makes it difficult to determine whether this service is legitimate.
On the other hand, Telegram has some advantages over the dark web. Physical contact with the seller allows you to check, weigh, and try the product in advance. Unless you want to transport your goods to another country, customs and sniffer dogs are not involved. Moreover, Telegram is not designed as an illicit marketplace, so it does not take a cut from your profits.
Law enforcement’s response
The rise of criminal Telegram groups did not go unnoticed. Although the Dutch police do not share its tactics and methods with the general public, it appears they are slowly infiltrating the Telegram groups.
In August 2019, the Dutch police in the city of Den Helder arrested a 22-year-old man for selling seven firearms to undercover officers. The arms dealer was sentenced to five years in prison. In February 2020, the police in Groningen arrested a 20-year-old man for selling one hundred ecstasy pills and for the possession of MDMA crystals, amphetamine, cocaine, a knuckle duster, and counterfeit money.
Given the number of sellers and users on Telegram, these arrests seem like a needle in a haystack. However, some criminals have taken police infiltration seriously and are now selling exclusively from invitation-only groups.
Other criminals pose a more serious threat after they created a Telegram group dedicated to retrieving names and addresses of police officers. In one specific case, an individual offered a 500 euro reward for the personal details of a policeman. This led to the arrest of a 23-year-old man from the city of Papendrecht.
Drug dealing on Telegram went practically unchallenged for a couple of years, but now the police are slowly gaining a foothold. Furthermore, Telegram could take action against criminal groups if they want to: the messenger app has deleted accounts related to the Islamic State in the past. It is predicted that Telegram groups will not disappear, but will take on a more secluded form, centered on an invitation-only basis.
Criminal Telegram groups were also enabled to grow due to the lack of reliable dark web markets. If new marketplaces – such as Yellow Brick and White House Market – can gain customers’ trust, we could see more Telegram users returning to the dark web.