The Curious Case of Cartel & Monopoly
Due to their illicit nature and necessity to constantly exist in the gray area of e-commerce, the fate of darknet markets is highly volatile and unpredictable. The dark web community’s strong suit is its ability to regroup and promptly replace the fallen marketplaces with other platforms.
However, it looks like something’s been testing its resilience heavily for the past few months. The year 2021 did take its toll on darknet trading. Plenty of markets ceased their existence.
Darknet Markets Against the Sea of Troubles
Some did it gracefully by announcing their retirement in advance and allowing the users to withdraw their money, like White House Market, ToRReZ, and Cannazon. Now, that is an example of working ethics. This certainly proves that there is a place for dignity and respect even when your main source of income is providing a place for a multitude of dealers to sell illegal stuff.
Still, it wouldn’t be a truly captivating darknet story if it didn’t involve mysterious disappearances and exit-scam alerts on Christmas Eve. The premise of the plot is that at the end of December, the admins of both Monopoly and Cartel markets reported technical issues and then completely dropped off the radar.
Naturally, it sparked a vast number of speculations, rumors, and amateur investigations. Surely, some “detectives” resemble inspector Lestrade more than they do Sherlock Holmes, but the dark web community is known as the sanctuary for those who value freedom of speech for a reason. So, let’s see what the Internet has to say, and, hopefully, get a better understanding of the situation.
Monopoly Market is Gone With the Wind
If you’re reading this, you’re probably well aware of what a Monopoly Market is. Yet, let’s do a quick recap of the platform’s history and main features:
- It was launched in November 2019 and sold only drugs.
- It implemented an “invitation only” policy for vendors.
- Due to a strict selection process, it managed to recruit less than 200 vendors by the time it stopped functioning.
- It was wallet-free (no built-in wallet required to transfer a payment), userless (no need to create an account), and only accepted Monero (XMR) as a payment currency.
- As many contemporary marketplaces do, it intended to find inspiration in users’ feedback and implement the most interesting ideas on the website.
This logo is not official, but it might suit Monopoly better now.
It all sounded promising until one day the platform became inaccessible. After studying what the /u/MonopolyOfficial account had to say about the situation and reviewing the comments on Dread’s /d/monopoly subdread, it’s possible to assume with a fair amount of certainty that everything went wrong on December 28, 2021.
If you attempt to visit Monopoly, you’ll see the
"X'F0' Onion Service Descriptor Can Not be Found." error code. Plus, one of the users added that the site showed a 500 error before it went offline on December 28.
This is the ultimate indicator that the website is gone.
The market’s administrator kept responding to the comments from rightfully concerned users, reassuring them that these access issues are just temporary. Of course, the reactions varied significantly.
Some users and vendors expressed their support and appreciation for the admin’s acknowledgment of the existing problem. Others were skeptical. Obviously, there were comments from users with freshly created accounts, trying to spread panic and suspicion with their “insider information”.
The variety of opinions here is astonishing.
But the things continued to get worse. First, one of the users asked /u/MonopolyOfficial when they plan to recover from their malfunctioning, and the admin refused to provide an ETA. Shortly after, the official account simply stopped answering. For now, it remains unreachable and displays no signs of coming back soon.
If you want to feel the atmosphere, just take a look at this.
Essentially, Dread forum users went insane. You might expect 2022 to be the time to outsmart stereotypes, not to use them as the basis to draw conclusions from. Yet, a whole plethora of people decided to blame the origin and background, claiming the site was German, British, etc. Whether it was an attempt to initiate a feud or demonstrate their “extensive knowledge” of the subject, it wasn’t as fruitful, as the authors expected.
Perhaps, it would be more informative to discuss why those people chose to register on December 28, 2021.
Some comments on the posts contained reasonable assumptions and arguments, some were complete nonsense. Unsurprisingly, conspiracy theories had to be brought to the table at some point.
Maybe that’s how hacking-themed and superhero movies producers get their ideas about coding.
An uncountable number of speculations, allegations, and accusations were expressed during multiple discussions, dedicated to this topic. Eventually, ShakyBeats, a reputed Dread moderator, was forced to close the Monopoly’s subdread to prevent panic and fake info from spreading. As the closure was announced, ShakyBeats stated:
scam? busted? Overdosed? We may never know what happened to /u/MonopolyOfficial
Frankly, this statement is hard to disagree with.
There are several major reasons why darknet markets go offline:
- DDoS or other cyberattack;
- law enforcement operation.
Although the number of possible motivations behind admin’s behavior is going through the roof (even falling victim to coronavirus has been mentioned), arrest and exit-scam are the most popular explanations among Dread users. There is also a theory that the admin decided to quit out of rage and frustration, but it’s really hard to prove or dismiss this because no one can read other people’s minds.
Jail is one of the most frequently mentioned whereabouts of Monopoly’s admin. Of course, it’s impossible to determine the admin’s current location with 100% certainty, but these presumptions gave rise to disputes about whether the amount of escrow money was even worth being prosecuted or exit-scamming.
After all, Monopoly was a wallet-free and userless market. Thus, was it even viable to perform an exit scam? Turns out, indeed it was. The user named /u/lolwhatsecurity elaborated on this topic quite profoundly.
Not all vendors had FE privileges.
It was walletless sort of how WHM was walletless. You pay the amount required when placing an order but it could be in escrow for up to 30 days. The difference was if there was a refund or the order wasn’t accepted the coins would go back into the wallet you specified when placing the order and not a wallet controlled by the market. An exit scam would be possible. However, the admin always spoke as if a direct deal was the goal for all vendors and it wasn’t a big market. It had around 180 vendors.
On top of that vendors had a fairly low number of orders that could be open at any one time. A new, non-FE vendor could have 50 (I think) orders open.
Lastly, they’d closed applications for new vendors a couple of months ago. It wasn’t an ideal setup for an exit scam.
So, let’s try to sum up the arguments in favor and against exit scam:
|Only a small number of vendors on the market are entitled to Finalize Early (FE) status.||Due to the cautious selection policy, the number approximately had 180.|
|When you transfer the payment, it doesn’t go directly to the seller, it can stay in Escrow for 30 days and goes back to your wallet only in case of a refund.||Vendors, who weren’t eligible for FE status, couldn’t have more than 50 orders at a time.|
|Hence, the market still controls the escrow funds.||The call for applications to become a vendor closed just a few months ago. Plus, it was about time to receive a commission from FE-sellers, but, according to one of the vendors on Dread, the admin disappeared before the due date.|
There is so little factual information on the current events, that it’s absolutely impossible to claim anything with certainty, besides the fact that Monopoly doesn’t intend to come back soon. Yet, some people, like this user, might refuse to accept even the most inarguable evidence:
HE AINT EXIT HE JUST CLOSE DOWN WITHOUT TELLIN NOBODY
But if you admit that looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably not a chicken, right? That’s why it seems reasonable to agree with Dread’s opinion on the situation, expressed by its administrator, Paris, who wrote that the perspectives of this situation’s unfolding don’t look reassuring.
Cartel Market Followed into Monopoly’s Footsteps
Cartel Market’s tale has pretty much the same refrain as Monopoly’s story. For those, who don’t know what Cartel Market is, let’s describe it briefly:
- It was established in June 2020.
- Its product range was very diverse (they even had “self-defense” sections).
- They accepted both Monero and Bitcoin.
- They supported Escrow with Multisig and provided the FE option.
- One of their goals was to make the platform more like a surface web e-commerce store in terms of advertising and promotion capabilities.
Cartel Market’s advertisement.
Let’s start with recreating the chain of events that took place as the situation with Cartel Market became more suspicious:
1. December 23, 2021. The market’s representative Ryuu posted a message that the website is currently under a severe DDoS attack. However, the information about this alleged incident referred to December 24, 2021. So, the beginning of this downfall is unclear. Since that moment, the Cartel’s administration has not resurfaced online and access to the marketplace became limited.
2. December 27, 2021. Ryuu promised that the site would be back by this time, but, of course, the expectations didn’t match the reality. Between December 23 and December 27 users frequently mentioned encountering a 502 error, but since December 27 it became a SOCKS5 error, repeating the Monopoly pattern.
3. December 29. 2021. Ryuu issued the last update on the situation, and it’s been radio silence ever since.
So everyone knows that we got hit by DDOS on past Friday, /u/6ix said that only on Monday things will probably be back to normal, and that was the last time we spoke, he is offline for 6 days now. I don’t have access to the backend and I don’t know if something happened with him. But I really believe that some serious shit is going on with him, I hope it’s not the case. I talked with dread staff and we are going to wait a couple more days because of the holidays to see if something change.
Cartel subdread was also closed due to the overwhelming number of speculations. Naturally, it’s hard to believe that since June 2020 the market’s administration managed to collect a fortune to compensate for the hustle of exit scam. Still, it’s a very plausible assumption, considering the surrounding circumstances.
Paris, Dread administrator, was asked if the market should be expected back, and the response was that it would be a very unlikely scenario. ShakyBeats, Dread moderator, also wasn’t optimistic in the comment about closing the subdread, warning people to stay cautious.
Overall, the darknet community might be used to marketplaces come and go, but with the growing number of sudden retirements and mysterious disappearances, it becomes evident that the “stranger things” no longer happen only on a Netflix show. Onion services started to act weird, which leads to more suspicion if we take all the circumstances into account.
It might be a regular case of an exit scam or a law enforcement operation. It might even be an alien abduction, we cannot know for sure. Anyway, for the Monopoly and Cartel users, it’s clearly time to move on.