Mark & Lisa’s Excellent Adventure into the Dark Web

By Lisa Wilding-Brown

You’ve probably heard of the dark web. It’s that scary, hidden part of the Internet where criminals and fraudsters live, stealing data and breaking security protocols. It’s also an unknown quantity for most people in the market research industry.

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What exactly is the dark web and how do fraudsters use it to rack up the nearly $2 Trillion in cyber fraud expected by 2019? In a recent presentation at SampleCon, Mark Menig of Pure Spectrum joined me to discuss the dark web, what it means, and why it has been such a challenge for almost all industries, especially market research.

What Is the Dark Web?

Most people spend most of their life on the surface web – the part of the Internet that is indexed by Google and is accessible through their search engine. Unbelievably, only about 15% of the web is indexed by Google, with huge volumes of content living on sites with login access or membership portals. Below that lives the deep web where research databases, abandoned websites, government resources, financial records, and academic information resides – largely unknown to anyone but the people who use them.

And then below that is the dark web – a hidden bastion of illicit activity that can only be accessed with special browsers and search tools that most people don’t even know exist. To access sites on the dark web, you need a special Tor browser and “.onion” links, providing a level of anonymity that restricts access and makes tracking difficult. Fraudsters live here because of that anonymity. They can communicate and work in a version of the Internet that most people never see or realize exists and enforcement is difficult due to the safeguards put in place to access these sites.

Where the Fraud Lives

There are several approaches to fraud, both of which use the dark web to hide. The first is bot activity – the implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and programs written by fraudsters to bypass security protocols and safety nets put in place on most panels. These systems are increasingly sophisticated, requiring panels to invest equally in maintaining strong protections and top-notch technology. Even now, the gap between human and AI driven fraud is shrinking, making it more difficult than ever to recognize and stop these efforts.

The other form of fraud you’ll find on the dark web is human-operated. The lone wolf hacker is someone who utilizes an array of technologies to get around these safeguards. This includes spoofing location and IP address (Internet Protocol), using diverse browser configurations and unique digital fingerprints, leveraging survey forums, and joining multiple panels.

Finally, there is human collaboration, driving things like mobile click farms, like this one recently uncovered in China:


The dark web enables lone wolf hackers to hide their activities and empowers click farm operators to find and recruit collaborators to their fraudulent efforts.

Understanding the Root of Fraud

In crafting our presentation, I wanted to give people a firsthand look at the source of the issues that most people in market research only address when it comes to our sample. To show that we can be proactive and start acting to address the rise in smarter AI, more sophisticated hackers, and robust, commercialized click farms.

Fraud is at an all-time high, but despite this, the conversation only focuses on fixing problems once they are known. Only by taking steps proactively, exploring the roots of fraud, and collaborating to find a resolution will we be able to address the problem and minimize its impact on the industry. Interested in viewing our entire presentation?  A video will be made available soon.  Click here to receive a copy.

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