"Nice try Europol."
Update 28 July: As suspected, it seems that at least one of the listings for "trafficked girls" on this site is not real. A reader on Twitter (who has since deleted their tweet) and a commenter on this article have shared a link to a porn video that appears to feature the same blonde girl presented on the site as "Nicole." The suspiciously staged-looking photos appear to be screenshots of this video.
"Nicole's starting bid is set at 150,000$," the listing read. The girl, skinny, blonde, and topless, appeared to be thrashing around in the accompanying photos. With her arms tied behind her back, and the rope connected to a wire frame, "Nicole" lurched forward as the shadow of a man loomed in the background.
The advert for the upcoming auction included Nicole's breast size, weight, and that she is free from sexually transmitted diseases. She was being showcased on the dark web, on a site run by a group calling itself "Black Death."
"I'm interested in the girl," I told the site owners in an encrypted email, "want to see more photos first." It didn't take long for a reply to hit my inbox.
I found Black Death after a link was posted on Reddit. "Apparently they're an organized crime group that deals in nearly anything, you name it," the post read.
After having landed on the site, users are met with a cornucopia of different services: weapons, drugs, bombings, assassinations, new identities, and trafficking. A feed of news updates apparently stretching back years is also listed. "Black Death enters Deep Web," the site read on 27 January, 2010. "And we are here to stay." After this, the site apparently changed addresses several times. "We will do it any time we are getting too popular," it said.
"Do not contact us just to ask questions," the site continued. I decided to pose as a potential customer to see what I could learn about these so-called dark web human traffickers.
"Who are you, how do you know about us? Who recommended us?" the owners barked in their email response.
In the short time after I initially contacted Black Death, another girl was added to the site, this time with a starting bid of $180,000. All of the images were high quality, complete with dramatic lighting. They also contained no identifying pieces of metadata, and a reverse image search did not return any results.
I wrote back to Black Death, claiming that I acted as a middleman between businesses.
They didn't buy it. "Nice try Europol," read the reply.
After more exchanges over several days, and with me fabricating evidence that I possessed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Bitcoin, Black Death made it clear they wanted nothing to do with me.
"Do not bother us again," they wrote. And then, the site disappeared. "Black Death has moved," a placeholder on the site read.
After keeping the conversation going through emails, I was eventually given a list of detailed instructions for the auction. I was required to pay an upfront deposit to view a livestream of the girls. I asked to be let in at no cost, but this was denied.
"The dark web, as it's known, is not somewhere that we pick up a lot of stuff from," a tactical advisor from the National Crime Agency's UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) told me over the phone. The NCA requested that we did not name the advisor as advisors' names are not publicly known.
He said the UKHTC has seen similar sites, selling male and female slaves, sometimes with indications that the victims are being trafficked for sex work, on more open sites. Indeed, the trading of people online is not new. Social networks and online back pages have been used to facilitate human trafficking for years.
Apart from the dramatic photos, there wasn't a great difference between the Black Death site and auction sites already known to the UKHTC, the advisor said.
"I don't think for one minute if you send [the money] you're ever going to see it again."
But experts were not totally convinced that the site was legitimate. It was the glossy, high quality photos that immediately rang alarm bells for the UKHTC advisor, who felt that they were "probably staged." On other sites, the people being traded "will not be glamorized in the way these girls are," he added.
There are other problems with the Black Death site too. "The bizarre thing with this is they tell you where they were kidnapped and where they are based," the advisor noted. The site claimed that the American victims were abducted in Paris. "I would think there would be a lot of high profile media around the disappearance of American citizens in Europe," he said.
That, and the site owners were asking for a deposit to be paid before letting anyone participate in the auction for real. "I don't think for one minute if you send it you're ever going to see it again," he said. The site owners claimed that they had used escrow services in the past—where an independent third party handles the finances during the transaction so no one is ripped off—but stopped after it became difficult to use them for high value transactions.
Conclusively proving that Black Death is legitimate or fake is impossible without more information. If it was a scam site, they made it difficult for me to give them any money. If it was the real deal, then why do it on the dark web, when the trade already functions pretty well in the open?
Human trafficking is an oft-quoted myth of the dark web, but one that is rarely backed up with evidence. For a brief few moments, I managed to grab the attention of someone who actually claimed to be selling people on this part of the internet—whether they really were or not.
"We don't invite strangers to auctions," Black Death told me in one email. "We don't want popularity. No Europol. No people just looking around. No journalists or bloggers."
"Just serious business."
Update July 27: We have clarified why we did not name the UKHTC advisor and added a screenshot.