Marketplaces on the dark web have been flogging off COVID-related wares like drugs sold as ‘cures’ or ‘vaccines’ at exorbitant prices.

Researchers from ANU’s Cybercrime Observatory sifted through the contents of 20 marketplaces on the internet’s underbelly finding personal protective equipment (PPE), ‘vaccines’, ventilators, medication, and testing kits from dubious sources.

Co-author of a study into the online sales, Professor Rod Broadhurst, said he thinks more should be done to shut down dark web criminal activity during the pandemic.

“We think we will see more of that and we need some basic monitoring to start shutting it down,” Professor Broadhurst said.

“We found unsafe vaccines, repurposed antivirals – which are in very short supply – and quite a lot of bulk PPE on the dark web.

“The biosecurity hazardous products are the most dangerous because some are marketed as if they have been leaked from real trials. But they could be fake and we don’t know what they are made from.”

Often trading in bitcoin – the price of which has risen with recent share market surges – dark web marketplaces are unregulated and a common source of illegal activity like selling drugs or weapons.

Of the coronavirus products found on the dark web, the ANU researchers noted that bulk protective equipment like surgical masks made up nearly half of all listings the researchers found.

Last month, the World Health Organisation warned that a shortage of protective equipment caused by panic buying and hoarding is putting lives at risk around the globe.

But the most expensive COVID-19 related products online were alleged vaccines which sold for an average cost of $575.

Vaccines allegedly sourced from China were much more expensive and regularly seeing price tags up to $23,000.

Bizarrely, the researchers even saw the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients being traded online as another form of vaccine.

Deputy Director of the Australian Institute of Criminology, Dr Rick Brown, said the findings were troubling.

“The sale of fake vaccines and other compromised medical items poses a real risk to the health and safety of the public and needs to be dealt with swiftly,” he said.

“These results will assist our law enforcement partners in tackling this concerning issue.”

Taking down dark web markets is more complex for law enforcement than merely blocking a website from your ISP’s DNS.

Because these sites are relayed through overlay networks like Tor, it is not so easy to find and shut down a website’s servers.

Instead, law enforcement have to use alternate methods like getting them to open spyware to trick dark web admins into giving themselves up.