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Silk Road Goes From Strength to Strength

The illicit, elusive "Amazon.com of drugs" is booming, and its customers are highly satisfied.

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A package from Silk Road. Photo via

By Chrisanne Grise

08/07/12

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Silk Road is essentially the Amazon.com of drugs and paraphernalia—and one and a half years since it began, business seems to be booming. A recent study of the anonymous black marketplace found that the site makes an estimated $22 million in annual sales, and its operators now generate more than $6,000 a day in commissions for themselves—up from $2,500 a day in February. And the total number of sellers has climbed from around 300 to over 550 in the last six months. The site uses shadowy techniques to hide its location, making it pretty much impossible to identify customers or track their movements. But despite—or perhaps partly because of—this elusiveness, customers have a high level of satisfaction, with 97.8% giving positive reviews. “On a site like Silk Road, where…most of the goods sold are illicit, one would expect a certain amount of deception to occur,” says Nicolas Christin, a Carnegie Mellon computer security professor who conducted the study. “Indeed, a buyer choosing, for instance, to purchase heroin from an anonymous seller would have very little recourse if the goods promised are not delivered. Surprisingly, though, most transactions on Silk Road seem to generate excellent feedback from buyers.” Purchases are made with “Bitcoin,” an Internet-only currency that bypasses the traditional banking system, further reducing detectability.

Silk Road isn't for luddites: some technical know-how is required to get on the site. But despite this, and not despite not advertising at all, it has managed to generate roughly as much revenue as illegal online pharmacies that use spam emails to lure in customers. “If you imagine them selling paperclips and buttons, they’re a stable business that’s growing without advertising or being in the news, just by word of mouth,” says Christin. He cautions that his study only examined a six month period, and that the highly volatile Bitcoin has increased nearly 70% in value over that time period. But however you crunch them, “It’s very bursty and spikey, but overall the numbers are moving up,” says Christin. “It’s a stable marketplace, and overall it’s growing steadily.”

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