Top Dark Web Markets: HANSA, Piracy and Exit Scams

HANSA Market is the third most popular dark web market this year, according to data from SurfWatch Labs. It’s a new and growing market focused on the security of its users. Previously in this series we’ve talked about Alpha Bay and the problem of stolen credentials and Dream Market and the cybercrime-as-a-service model. As we turn our attention to HANSA, it’s an opportunity to reflect on how these dark web markets work — and the reason there has been so much turnover the past few years.

Piracy is one of the top trending cybercrime categories on HANSA market. This includes pirated software, video games, movies, books and other media as well as credentials for related accounts. In the screenshot above a vendor is selling a collection of 21 ebooks by a popular author for just $4.99.

HANSA was created in response to the many exit scams that have occurred over the past few years. Most dark web markets require buyers to deposit money (bitcoins) before they can purchase. Once a market becomes popular, there can be a significant amount of bitcoins in limbo, and owners are often tempted to shut the market down and take all the money that has built up. HANSA created a system that they claim ensures that no exit scam is possible.

“After recent exit scams of various marketplaces (e.g. Evolution, BlackBank) we wanted to create a market where it is impossible for either admins or vendors to run away with your funds,” the admins wrote. “Most markets operate the same: Blindly deposit money into your account, wait for confirmations and then make the purchase. … On HANSA you do not have to deposit Bitcoins before your purchase. Every order is simply a Bitcoin transaction itself.”

How Do Exit Scams Work?

Not long ago — before the FBI took down Silk Road and creator Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison — there was a dream of a victimless black market where users could Anonymously purchase illicit goods such as drugs beyond the reach of intrusive government laws. But as Wired’s Andy Greenberg wrote in January, that dream is now largely dead due to the many exit scams and the turnover in marketplace leaders over the past few years:

The result has been that the libertarian free-trade zone that the Silk Road once stood for has devolved into a more fragmented, less ethical, and far less trusted collection of scam-ridden black market bazaars. Instead of the Silk Road’s principled—if still very illegal—alternative to the violence and unpredictable products of street dealers, the dark web’s economy has become nearly as shady as the Internet back alley politicians and moralizing TV pundits have long compared it to.

The most striking example of this is the Evolution Market exit scam. In March of 2015, the Evolution marketplace halted bitcoin withdrawals from the site for a week, using the excuse of technical difficulties as the owners, known as Verto and Kimble, let the virtual coffers build. Then they closed up shop and walked away with an estimated $12 million in bitcoin.

An admin for the market summed up the bad news to fellow users in a Reddit post, “I am so sorry, but Verto and Kimble have fucked us all.”

In April 2016, a year after the disappearance of Evolution, Nucleus Market, at the time the number two most popular dark web marketplace, suddenly vanished. Rumors of an exit scam abound.

However, not all exit scams are so high profile. Most exit scams are actually done by individual vendors, as Motherboard’s Jon Christian noted.

“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,” Christian wrote. “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?”

Escrow Payments and Finalizing Early

Many markets offer protection to buyers against this type of scam in the form of escrow payments. A neutral third party such as the market holds the money until the buyer has received the goods. After the buyer receives the order, payment is released. In the case of disputes, marketplace admins often act as an arbiter. However, many buyers and sellers use something known as “Finalize Early.” Essentially, the buyer releases the funds from escrow before receiving the goods or services. Some vendors abuse this trust.

HANSA does not offer the option to Finalize Early, ensuring that extra layer of protection is behind all market transactions.

While this policy helps protect buyers from vendor exit scams, there is still the concern that the market itself may perform an exit scam. In fact, this is one reason why some vendors prefer Finalizing Early. With numerous transactions in escrow, the market can at any time be holding a significant amount of bitcoins, and that can be tempting to steal. Finalizing Early lets those vendors receive payment immediately.

Multisignature Transactions

This is where multisignature escrow applies. HANSA uses a 2-of-2 multisignature escrow process (vendor-HANSA). As they explain, “Funds can only be accessed by the vendor after the buyer finalizes a transaction and can never be accessed by the site staff. Theft from either party is impossible.”

In January HANSA announced that it now supports 2-of-3 multisig transactions (buyer-vendor-HANSA) as well.

“The only flaw our market had in the past was the loss of Bitcoins in cases like the vendor losing his/her Bitcoin private key or him/her refusing to refund buyers in cases of disputes,” HANSA announced. “Fortunately this has happened very rarely and we have reimbursed the buyer every time out of our own pocket. Still, this can be avoided.”

With 2-of-3 multisig transactions, money is transferred into an escrow fund shared by the buyer, the seller and HANSA. Once two out those three parties approve the transaction, the funds are released.

This isn’t a new system. In fact, Evolution offered multisignature transactions designed to stop the exact kind of exit scam they eventually performed, but not many buyers used the feature.

As a moderater of the DarkNetMarket subreddit noted after the Evolution theft, “Maybe this will open more people’s eyes to the benefits of multisig.” Then he added, “Nah, who am I kidding? When has an event like this ever changed anything?”

The disadvantage is that the process can seem complicated and may turn away some users, which may be one of the reasons why HANSA is not quite as popular as AlphaBay and Dream Market — although at the moment it remains as one of the more trusted and stable dark web markets.

Author: Jeff Peters

SurfWatch Labs editor and host of SurfWatch Labs Cyber Chat podcast. Focused on using threat intelligence and data visualization in order to bring cybercrime to life and help make organizations safer.

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