In brief

  • Empire Market, a popular dark web market, has been offline for four days.
  • Some believe it is part of an exit scam, with the admins disappearing with escrow funds.
  • An estimated 2,638 BTC (or $30 million) is believed to have been taken.

Empire Market, the largest darknet marketplace, has been offline since August 22—and while initial reports suggested a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack was at fault, the continued downtime has stoked fears of a major exit scam.

A Twitter account @DarkDotFail, which claims to be from an anonymous journalist investigating privacy browser Tor, suggests that the administrators have disappeared with the funds accumulated within the site.

“With no explanation from its admins and no announcement from law enforcement, this looks like a devastating exit scam,” reads a tweet. “The darknet was in a golden age of trust. Expect a rough year of exit scams ahead as trust is rediscovered.”

@DarkDotFail says an Empire Market staff member, speaking under condition of anonymity, claims that site admins have gotten away with an estimated 2,638 BTC that was being held in escrow—or just over $30 million as of this writing.

And a recently posted screenshot from an apparent Empire moderator said, "I am crushed and ashamed by my admin's apparent decision to disappear with your funds."

Empire Market popped up in January 2018 after the AlphaBay marketplace shuttered, and grew to an estimated 1.3 million users. However, that popularity reportedly came with increased challenges in the form of DDoS attacks and “obsessive doxx attempts by a banned vendor,” the account claims.

The darknet marketplace has been down and admins have been AWOL before, only to suddenly return. But this stretch may be the longest the site has ever been dark.

Regardless of whether the exit is part of an unscrupulous scam or due to administrator fatigue, Empire's fall seems to be permanent.

Darknet marketplaces often end in turmoil, sometimes due to government takedowns (like Silk Road and Wall Street Market) or exit scams (such as Evolution). @DarkDotFail suggests there were eight such exit scams in 2019 following the closure of Wall Street Market.

Bleeping Computer spoke with Israeli cyber threat intelligence monitoring firm KELA, which suggested that recent discussion on darknet forums shows Empire Market users are likely to turn to alternative markets such as Icarus, White House Market, Versus, and Wickr.