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Dark Web Forum Activity Surged 44% in Early COVID Months

Researchers analyzed the activity of five popular English- and Russian-speaking Dark Web forums and discovered exponential membership growth.

Dark Web forum activity grew 44% during the spring of 2020 compared with baseline numbers in January, researchers learned in a new analysis of COVID-19's effects on underground forums.

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A team at cybersecurity company Sixgill analyzed five underground forums, chosen for their high volume of posts, low barrier to entry, and prominence, to investigate their user count and activity. At their peak, these forums had a combined total of 268,610 unique monthly users – up from 82,421 in January. Their compounded monthly growth rate ranged from 1% to 9.2%. 

While the growth can be explained by the increase in people sitting inside with the lack of other things to do, Sixgill security research lead Dov Lerner was surprised by the jump in activity. One site's growth did not hinder another's, a sign that participation on the Dark Web is growing. 

"Everyone's stuck at home; people are bored and looking for something to do … I would have guessed that the number of [Dark Web] actors would rise as well," he says. "I did not expect it to rise 44%. That number really stood out as something very, very striking." 

Earlier Sixgill reports detected an uptick in specific types of cybercrime on the Dark Web during the same spring 2020 timeframe, including the sale of gaming store accounts, compromised Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) credentials, money laundering services, and narcotics. 

The Forums

The forums are identified in the report as Forums A, B, C, D, and E. Researchers chose to not name the specific forums but say they are "extremely popular" and specifically focused on cybercrime. Four of the forums were English-speaking; one was Russian. While Russian is a prominent language on the Dark Web, Lerner hypothesizes Russian-speaking forums may have a smaller volume of posts, or Russian participants are joining large English-speaking forums. 

These sites were broad in nature and ran the gamut of cybercrime, with the range of shared information spanning gaming cheats to compromised software. "They all deal in one way or another with the more heavy cybercrime," Lerner says. "In general, I think it's interesting how many topics coexist on these forums. These are very broad."

Forum activity was evaluated in terms of the number of posts. Users were only counted if they had created at least one, as researchers couldn't determine the number of registered users who hadn't contributed. In the first half of 2020, 85% of participants contributed ten or fewer posts, and only 2.1% wrote more than 51 posts, researchers report. Most forum users barely participate at all: the top 20% most active users account for nearly 75% of all posts. 

There are many reasons why users might post infrequently, Lerner says. Some less experienced participants might be coming to learn, so they observe but don't contribute. Others may have wanted to dip their toes into the underground but then lost interest. Some users create "burner" accounts and post with a new username each time to maintain operational security.

All five forums analyzed experienced exponential growth, with the number of participants starting low and suddenly increasing over time. Each had different periods during which growth accelerated, and growth varied from forum to forum. The 44% increase researchers discovered is part of a trend toward higher participation overall, Lerner says. Many forums become popular through word of mouth as people share them with friends; from there, they can grow quickly.

Researchers are working to determine how long these forums last, and what drives their growth. COVID-related growth aside, he says a forum might become popular if it becomes known for a good or service in high demand. However, if something appears on one site, it can later be shared on others. While all forums evaluated are still in operation, two of the oldest – founded in 2006 – are now seeing their activity begin to stagnate.

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