By Tom Wilson

LONDON (Reuters) – “Darknet” trading platforms where contraband from drugs to stolen credit cards usually change hands are offering face masks and other coronavirus-related gear in return for bitcoin, researchers said on Monday.

Sites indexing sellers from the United States to Europe and Russia have appeared as demand for protective equipment soars during the pandemic, research shared with Reuters by blockchain analysis firm Elliptic showed.

Darknet markets are e-commerce sites designed to lie beyond the reach of regular search engines. They are popular with criminals, as buyers and sellers are largely untraceable and payment is made anonymously in cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

Governments across the world are rushing to secure supplies of masks and other protective gear to protect frontline medical staff during the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected over a million people and killed more than 68,000.

Competition over limited supplies of masks has turned even the legitimate market into the “Wild West,” European officials have said.

A Reuters investigation last month found individual brokers selling high-grade N95 masks at prices well beyond the pre-crisis retail levels of about $1 each. The frenzy has eroded standard quality controls, opening the market to an influx of masks of uncertain origin and effectiveness.

On the darknet, a new search engine known as “Recon” has over the past four weeks indexed listings of coronavirus-related goods for sale on some major marketplaces, Elliptic said.

“These vendors are opportunistic, jumping on any opportunity to supply goods that are difficult to obtain elsewhere,” Elliptic said.

Hundreds of listings of the sought-after N95 masks have recently appeared, the researchers said, with prices varying wildly. Some darknet vendors are selling N95 masks for almost 9 euros each, while others are offering the same items in bulk for as little as $1.50 each.

Sellers are also offering coronavirus testing kits, with one post offering unspecified and unverified “COVID-19 test strips” for over $90 each. Others are selling the malaria drug chloroquine as a supposed cure for coronavirus, making reference to claims by U.S. President Donald Trump over its potential.

While it is not possible to confirm whether such items are genuine, Elliptic said, around two-thirds of sellers themselves could be considered “authentic” given their user ratings and large numbers of previous sales.

Over a third of those selling coronavirus-related items usually focus on the sale of drugs or drug paraphernalia, while 45% sell fraud-related items such as hacking services or counterfeit bank notes, Elliptic said.

(Reporting by Tom Wilson; Editing by David Holmes)