Buying on Silk Road

In this post, I’m going to write up the process of buying something on Silk Road. The first thing to note is that the item I bought was not an illicit drug, otherwise I’d hardly be detailing the process on a public and identified blog. Rather, my purpose was ethnographic – if I am to study how the SR marketplace works, taking part in aspects of it is a useful learning tool. Reading an account of something, or listening to someone’s story, is one way of learning. Another way is to try it for yourself – and as I usually find, self-experience can result in learnings that you can’t necessarily predict!

Browsing the SR marketplace for items which were legal and which I would otherwise have bought led me to the Apparel section of the site. Although best know for its selection of psychoactive substances, SR also sells a wide range of goods and some services. In the Apparel section, I found jackets, bags, jeans, sunglasses, jewelery. Many of these listings were for faked designer goods, as opposed to stolen goods. I thought to myself that if I were in South East Asia on holiday and bought myself some ‘fake’ designer clothing, I wouldn’t get stopped at the Australian border and strip-searched. Almost all Australians I know will buy these much cheaper faked goods when overseas. So this appeared to be a good option for a ‘legal’ SR purchase.

If only I'd bought them for this price!
An example of FoxyGirl’s offerings

From the would-be buyers perspective, it is important to get a sense of the trustworthiness of the vendor you are considering purchasing from. The item I liked the look of the best was FoxyGirl’s replica [insert designer name here] sunglasses. So I checked out FoxyGirl’s reputation. Searching for her name in the forums led me to her review thread, where I found links to her Tor ‘gallery’ of items for sale, and comments by other SR members who seemed satisfied with their purchases. One comment I found read:

Grabbed some [insert designer name here] from foxy and holy hell! I put em up next to my real ones and honestly, cant really tell they are fake at all. really good replicas!
shipping was super fast and very well packaged might I add! Thanks so much foxygirl! will be grabbing more stuff very very soon!

I then read carefully through FoxyGirl’s terms and conditions and her feedback, which was positive. She seemed like a friendly salesperson, willing to help. But most of the vendor profiles seem to be written in that way. I then messaged FoxyGirl to ask her for some more details about the sunglasses, and really just to suss out her legitimacy. True to her word, she got back to me with further information and in a professional yet friendly style.

At this point I was convinced – I was going to buy these sunglasses. Of course, in order to complete the transaction, I needed to have enough Bitcoin in my SR account.

Back in March, I decided to bite the bullet and buy $300 AUD of Bitcoin. I chose a time when the market was pricing BTC at $147 AUD per coin. I traded with a friend I met at a local #cryptoparty who had a listing on Bitcoin-OTC. In fact once I knew this guy and he taught me how to use encryption, buy BTC from him was as simple. First, I downloaded Bitcoin-QT, the original wallet software (this takes a few days due to the size of the blockchain which must be constantly updated to keep the network in-sync). Then, my friend sent me his bank details (encrypted, of course). I then deposited $300 in his bank account, taking a screenshot of the transaction as evidence. He promptly transferred me the equivalent in Bitcoin minus a small commission for his efforts. I then had 1.9 BTC.

One of the oddities about this context of buying with BTC which I had not anticipated was that since I bought them in March for $147 per coin, they continued to appreciate in value until they were worth over $250 each coin! During this time, I was meaning to buy my sunglasses but each day that passed, the price in BTC was getting lower and lower as the BTC value increased. I found that I didn’t want to purchase because what if tomorrow the price was even lower? This experience of wanting to hoard rather than buy is not something we are used to experiencing when using an inflationary currency, e.g. the AUD or the USD.

Of course I was a victim of my own greed. On April 11, BTC value plunged and suddenly my sunglasses were much more expense! If only I’d bought them when the BTC was valued at $250… Sigh! In fact, what actually happened was that I had decided to buy the sunglasses on April 10, and so I made a transfer from my local wallet to my SR wallet of .51 BTC, which at the time would have bought me two pairs and express postage! This was at 10pm at night and I was tired, and so it happens, it take a few hours for the transfer to occur from your wallet to the SR wallet. So I went to sleep. In the morning the price has plunged.

I waited for a little while, hoping the BTC value would come back up somewhere near the price I bought them for. But this didn’t look likely anytime soon, so I bought myself 1 pair (note, not the 2 I was going to get!) and express postage, for .75 BTC. The process essentially involved typing my name and address and confirming the order. FoxyGirl offers buyers the option of encrypting the address details using her public key for extra protection. As I am not buying an illegal item, I was happy to use my actual name and actual address and not to encrypt. To me, this is the weakest link of the system for the buyer (who is purchasing an illegal item) – they must decide what to do. It seems a lot of people who buy drugs on SR do ship to their real name and real address: I guess there is more chance it will arrive that way as long as Customs or the Post do not detect contraband in the package. But there is a lottery involved here – some packages do get checked and do get detained. In Australia it appears the odds of having a package detected is a bit higher than in other parts of the world.

I’ve had further messages with FoxyGirl to nominate what colour and size I would like, and now she is processing my order. Another custom to be aware of in SR transactions is ‘finalising’. Once the order moves from processing to in transit, as the buyer, I will have the option to ‘finalise’ which indicate the package has arrived and the vendor can receive their money from the SR escrow. As I am a first-time buyer and from Australia, there’s a high chance that I will be asked to finalise early, which means to press that finalise button before the vendor will ship the product. The rules on SR state that no-one should finalise early because then all the risk is transferred from the vendor to the buyer, but many top vendors request FE to protect themselves against buyer fraud. In my case, FoxyGirl had no requirement to FE, so I’ll do it the SR approved way. But in my browsing of drug listings, many top vendors selling MDMA or cannabis or cocaine require FE for Australians or for buyers with no history or negative history.

Now I just have to wait and see when (if?) my package arrives!

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Update 29/4/13: my package arrived this morning and the goods all check out. Looks very legit. The slightly concerning part was that I was asked to sign for the goods. I’m sure most people buying from SR wouldn’t be so keen to sign for their package. Other than that, all went well.

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