Like the changing of the seasons, a natural stage in the dark web marketplace life cycle has once again manifested.
Nucleus market, which primarily sold illegal drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and cannabis, has disappeared: The site is unresponsive, and the market administrators have not made any announcements about planned downtime. This has forced vendors to migrate to other sites and panicked users to figure out where to go next, all amidst a whirlwind of rumours and speculation of where Nucleus—and its cash—has gone.
“Nucleus is an awesome market. One of the best. Hope all the admins are ok and nothing serious happened,” someone identifying themselves as a vendor wrote in a comment on the news site Deep Dot Web.
At the moment, it's not totally clear why Nucleus's website is unresponsive. It could be an exit scam—a scam where site administrators stop allowing users to withdraw their funds and then disappear with the stockpile of bitcoins. This is what happened with Evolution, one of the most successful marketplaces, in March 2015. Other examples include Sheep Marketplace, from 2013, and more recently BlackBank Market.
Perhaps the site was hacked by a third party. Indeed, Nucleus claimed to be the target of a financially motivated attack last year. Or maybe the administrators were arrested, or the site is just suffering some downtime.
A graph showing the lifetimes of known dark web marketplaces, including those reported to be hacked, raided, or closed in scams. Image: Gwern.net
Regardless of what actually happened, vendors are already shifting to other marketplaces, with users trying to keep tabs on their favourite dealers, a pattern that has become something of a regular occurrence on the dark web.
“Anyone know how to get in contact with CDarwin, a Australian oral steroid manufacture/dealer. Probably the best on the entire tor,” someone posted on Deep Dot Web.
“With nucleus gone does anyone know which market the UK based hash vendor called Frasen has moved to?” user doggwitbone wrote on Reddit.
Some users have seemingly come to terms with the fact that this constant switching between sites is now an established part how dark web marketplaces operate.
“Go here!!!! keep it moving, we all know the drill !! next up, Dream Market!! follow the url,” one Reddit user recommended. (Dream Market is another established marketplace that has existed since late 2013).
Others are more confident that the disappearance is only temporary.
“The amount of mania, hysteria and paranoia over the supposed 'exit scam' really speaks to the kneejerk reaction many darknet market customers have exhibited for a long time,” wrote Reddit user mxe_is_my_master. “Perhaps those who are so adamantly 100% certain that this was an exit scam are unaware that this isn't the first time Nucleus has gone down and then come right back up. Chill. The. Fuck. Out.”
Even if Nucleus does come back, some users and vendors will already have moved on to another marketplace. In a setting as turbulent as the dark web, this pattern of migration will keep coming back around, and around, and around.