Russia’s criminal crypto empire with many heads
Darknet marketplace Hydra is becoming one of Russia’s largest Internet companies, with a trading volume of nearly $1.4 billion. If you can compare.
Hydra is by far the largest darknet marketplace in the world. The Russian platform has been trading drugs since 2015, and later stolen sim cards, credit card data and other illegal goods. Over the course of half a decade, Hydra has risen to become the unrestricted leader of the global darknet.
An Analysis by Flashpoint
The report contains numerous interesting findings that show the amazing methods by which Hydra has managed to grow faster than any other darknet marketplace before it.
Until 2017, the RAMP marketplace dominated the Russian online drug trade. After the police shut down RAMP, Hydra rose to become the new top dog on the Russian darknet. The marketplace allowed Chinese producers of drugs to bring them to the Russian market in large quantities. The easy payment options, a robust reputation system, strong encryption, and very little downtime quickly made Hydra popular with Russian cybercriminals.
Sales have been growing rapidly ever since. In early 2016, trade through the portal totaled less than $10 million; by 2018, it was already half a billion, and by 2020, it nearly reached $1.4 billion. Flashpoint calculates these totals by using Chainalysis’ data on incoming coins to Hydra’s wallets. According to them, Hydra now accounts for about 75 percent of the total volume of all darknet markets.
The rise of Hydra is surprising, as the marketplace actually does everything that should not be done to grow: it limited its area of operation to Russia – the language is exclusively Russian, only Russian sellers are allowed -, tightened the conditions to be able to sell on the platform, and introduced strict limitations on payouts.
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This allowed Hydra to grow enormously
Or is it precisely because of this? It could be that precisely because of those strict restrictions on payouts, Hydra has become a kind of crypto exchange that is particularly attractive to criminals.
Deposits on Hydra are apparently only possible via cryptocurrencies. But since July 2018, buyers and sellers have not been able to cash out these cryptocurrencies. Instead, they have to exchange them for rubles in order to pay them out as such, such as to Qiwi or Yandex Money wallets. However, there seem to be old accounts that can continue to pay out cryptocurrencies. Such old accounts are traded briskly and at good prices in Russian cybercrime forums.
Hydra is thus becoming a money laundering platform for Russian criminals. As Flashpoint writes, the trail of money is usually lost when sellers cash out their collected Bitcoins, and they are then exchanged for rubles and transferred through systems that are much less transparent than Bitcoin. Depositing on Hydra could be an elegant way to discreetly exchange Bitcoins for rubles. Read more at https://www.coindesk.com/russias-darknet-criminals.
In general, rubles, not Bitcoin, seem to be the appropriate medium for criminals. To circumvent increasingly stringent anti-money laundering requirements imposed by exchanges, Hydra introduced a system of “klads” – hidden treasures – for deposits: Buyers hire couriers to deposit vacuum-packed cash in specific locations where sellers can pick it up. In this way, Bitcoin would have been at the beginning of an online crime empire, but is increasingly being jettisoned by it in favor of traditional money laundering methods.
With a massive increase in sales in recent years, Hydra has become one of Russia’s largest and fastest-growing Internet companies. As Chainalysis (https://www.chainalysis.com/) revealed last year, Hydra is already the largest crypto company in Eastern Europe. Yet the marketplace continues to operate in an area that, while broad, remains niche: drug trafficking in Russia. Flashpoint analysts now worry what will happen if Hydra takes on other criminal markets and expands into Europe and the U.S., as has long been announced.