Keeping Pace With the Evolution of Illicit Darknet Fentanyl Markets: Using a Mixed Methods Approach to Identify Trust Signals and Develop a Vendor Trustworthiness Index

Published date01 May 2023
Date01 May 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2023, Vol. 39(2) 276 –297
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10439862231159530
Keeping Pace With the
Evolution of Illicit Darknet
Fentanyl Markets: Using a
Mixed Methods Approach
to Identify Trust Signals
and Develop a Vendor
Trustworthiness Index
Marie-Helen Maras1, Jana Arsovska1,
Adam Scott Wandt1, and Kenji Logie1
Illicit darknet markets (DNMs) are highly uncertain and in a perpetual state of
flux. These markets thrive in a zero-trust, high-risk environment. However,
the trustworthiness of vendors plays a critical role in illicit transactions and the
sustainability of the illegal trade of goods and services on DNMs. Focusing on the
illicit fentanyl trade and applying signaling theory and embedded mixed methods
design, we examined different ways that trustworthiness is signaled by vendors on
darknet sites. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, in recent years, has been declared a public
health emergency in the United States due to its high potency and unprecedented
number of deaths associated with its use; however, the topic remains understudied
and requires urgent attention. There are few studies that have focused on fentanyl
trafficking on DNMs and no mixed method studies that have focused specifically
on trust signals in DNM fentanyl networks. In our research, first, we conducted a
focus group and in-depth interviews with criminal justice professionals to understand
the inner workings of darknet sites, fentanyl networks, and how trust is assessed.
Second, we scraped select darknet sites to collect and curate scraped data for later
examination of vendor trustworthiness on DNMs. Third, using signaling theory to
1City University of New York, USA
Corresponding Author:
Marie-Helen Maras, Associate Professor, Department of Security, Fire, and Emergency Management,
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, 524 W 59 St., New York,
NY 10019, USA.
1159530CCJXXX10.1177/10439862231159530Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeMaras et al.
Maras et al. 277
understand how vendors signal trustworthiness on select darknet sites selling drugs,
including fentanyl, we applied both qualitative and quantitative content analysis of
DNM features, and language used in vendor profiles, listings, and product/vendor
reviews, to inform the development of a trustworthiness index. In this research, we
used software, such as Atlas.ti and Python, to analyze our data. The main purpose of
this article is to provide an in-depth description of the mixed methods approach we
used to inform the development of a vendor trustworthiness index, which we used
to examine trust between illicit fentanyl vendors and buyers. Our research can serve
as a guide for the development of DNM vendor trustworthiness index for future
research on other illegal markets.
signaling theory, trust, darknet, fentanyl, mixed methods, embedded research design
Synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, are a leading cause of opioid deaths in the
United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC,
2022), U.S. overdoses from opioids rose from 70,029 in 2020 (57,834 of these deaths
were linked to synthetic opioids) to 80,816 in 2021 (of which 71,238 were attributed
to synthetic opioids). The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA, 2021) identi-
fied “illicit fentanyl” as “primarily responsible for fueling the ongoing opioid crisis”
(p. 4). Synthetic opioids, like fentanyl and tramadol, are also cheaper to manufacture
and buy than other opioids (Miller, 2020). The costs of fentanyl and its high potency
are viewed as drivers for its increased use by traffickers, dealers, and even buyers. The
DEA further identified that drug traffickers and dealers mix illegal fentanyl with other
illicit drugs, like heroin and other illegal drugs. Buyers may wittingly or unwittingly
purchase fentanyl and/or other illicit drugs (opioids and non-opioid drugs) mixed with
A factor that contributed to the mass distribution and illegal purchasing of synthetic
opioids, including fentanyl, was the availability of these illicit drugs on darknet mar-
ketplaces (DNMs; Miller, 2020). In violation of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act of
1970, drugs, including fentanyl, have been traded in DNMs, which have removed bar-
riers to entry into illicit drugs markets by providing criminals with the infrastructure,
personnel, resources, clientele, and products needed to sell drugs online (Maras, 2017).
These illegal drugs have been advertised, marketed, and sold via smartphone apps and
on bulletin boards, discussion forums, social media platforms, online marketplaces,
online classified advertisement sites, instant messaging platforms, and unencrypted,
encrypted, and proprietary communications platforms (e.g., Facebook Messenger,
WhatsApp, and PhantomSecure; see UNODC, 2021). Drug markets in general, and
those on the darknet specifically, are in a constant state of flux (UNODC, 2021, 2022),
where the type and variation of drugs, demand and supply for certain drugs, market

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