The aim of this post is to provide a work in progress demo of how using titles for your paragraphs can structure your writing. The idea is that each paragraph has a named purpose in bold. I remove these before submitting the article. The titles add up to a narrative for the paper and so help structure what each part does.
A darknet vendor of forged dollars and their community: a distributed community of illicit practice
The aim of this article is to understand a particular kind of criminal association which allows for cooperation and evaluation of a shared crime script and that functions as a distributed community of illicit practice. This article presents a crime script analysis of a darknet cryptomarket based counterfeit currency vendor and their community, putting the script into a technical-material context. It outlines the two interlinked crime scripts covering the last two stages of the counterfeit currency distribution system, for the currency vendor and middleman, ‘Benjamin’, and the buyer who will use the currency. The discussion forum allows each script to be fine tuned and creates feedback for the vendor on the quality and effectiveness of the notes. The online community is critical to the distribution of the notes and to their effective use. It forms a learning infrastructure, promotes semi-professional performances and evaluates risk. Counterfeit cash use is both a rationally structured crime, and an expressive one.
Introduction: Community developed modus operandi
What the study does: This paper describes the final stages of a counterfeit currency distribution network operating using a Tor darknet cryptomarket, covering the phase from secondary distribution to retail use. Cryptomarkets have gained prominence as novel market infrastructures primarily for the distribution of illicit drugs (Barratt and Aldridge 2016). The cryptomarket is shown to function as the ‘last mile’ distributor (Dittus, Wright, and Graham 2017) of counterfeit currency to buyers who will use it in the field, either individually or in tandem with an organised group. The case shows an example of a functioning supply chain from producer to final user and demonstrates how the darknet functions as both a distribution mechanism for the product and a learning environment for distributor and users, where they share user defined crime scripts for the successful use of counterfeit currency. The paper focuses on the process by which users develop and test effective crime scripts, what it tells about their priorities, their accounts of motive, and how they position themselves in relation to the wider illicit economy. It theorises the particular kind of criminal association involved as a distributed community of illicit practice, where networks are anonymous and temporary but effective in assessing the technical value of counterfeit notes and the practical risks and challenges involved in their use.
Suggest an audience: Counterfeiting is tackled by a range of bodies including the specialist policing taskforces such as the UK National Crime Agency Central Office for the Suppression of Counterfeit Currency and Protected Coins, central banks, and retailer/banking business organisations . Why it matters: Forged currency involves immediate risks to those handling the notes and longer term potential harms in damaging trust in the cash economy. There is a concentration of harm among frontline staff and smaller businesses. Cashiers or waiting staff who unwittingly handle fake notes might have their wages docked or be prosecuted. Smaller businesses which handle more cash will likewise be more at risk. It damages trust and costs are socialised to the rest of the economy. The most cash dependent demographic in society is also the part of the population that has least access to banking systems and credit and are most reliant on cash for paying and being paid (Lupo-Pasini 2021). As economies become more digitised and cash is steadily squeezed out of mainstream payment processes the harm of counterfeiting is increasingly concentrated among the more marginalized groups. Concerted efforts to tackle counterfeiting by reducing dependence on cash and actively targeting counterfeiting does not improve their position nor create alternative routes to finance for them. In fact it may have a damaging effect on the unbanked and technologically marginalised, particularly in developing country contexts (Wang 2020).
Get this in proportion: Currency counterfeiting is relatively uncommon. In 2003 the US Federal Reserve estimated that less than 1 in 10000 currency notes were counterfeit (Judson and Porter 2003), a result also reported for the Canadian dollar (Chant 2004) and estimated at 1 in 40,000 for the UK Pound Sterling (Bank of England 2022). Counterfeiting of the Indian Rupee is more common and appears to have been rising significantly from 2019 (Reserve Bank of India 2019, 2022). Money laundering through electronic means and crimes such as cheque fraud and card-not-present fraud are much more significant in terms of loss and in spreading corruption and funding the activities of organised criminal groups. Changes in the era of debt led/credit fuelled capitalism have further limited the opportunities for counterfeiting currency when more lucrative rewards lie in defrauding the banking sector (Kahn and Roberds 2008). Improved detection of fakes and improved note design have increased the technical demands on counterfeiters. Despite that there is still enough of an incentive for the practice to persist and even grow among some currencies such as the rupee, while there has in contrast been a decline in counterfeit euro circulation (European Central Bank 2021).
We should still care: Despite the challenges presented to counterfeiters, cash forgery persists. It evolves and shifts with the value put on various cash types and denominations, and the security/detection technology employed by central banks. Increasingly banknotes are designed as one element of a technological whole which encompasses surveillance, processing and detection technologies. The rise of automated processing points such as supermarket autopay terminals changes the process away from human detection. Machines can be designed to be more sensitive to particular aspects of the note such as precise weight or shape. These changed technological assemblages shift common understandings of what cash is in symbolic and practical terms, for example, from a store of capital to an object of value that can vary independently of its stated face value (Lemon 1998). Hinge – it’s a niche but an interesting one: However populations do at times return to cash. The growth in cash using during the pandemic also makes it likely that there are more opportunities for counterfeiting. Forgery may be beginning to matter more. At November 2021, US currency in circulation amounted to 2,116.4 US$ billion in seasonally adjusted figures, 9.9% of the M2 money supply (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve 2021). Despite the general move to digital payments, the cash supply has steadily grown throughout 2020/21 along with a broad increase in the money supply. The growth reflects central banks’ intervention in the economy under the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore cash continues to matter both as a technological system and one which has an evolving significance alongside its digital counterpart.
A theoretical postulate shows my contribution: Counterfeiting has a role in the crime business model. The main problem in maintaining the counterfeit currency economy is that to have any use value notes must circulate into the real economy quickly and in so doing are effectively nullified. They are detected and eliminated or become in any case useless to the criminals producing and using them. Criminals depend on the interface with the licit economy to wash fake notes into real money or goods. As a result the counterfeit economy is inherently parasitic on both the legal and illegal economies and is no way self sustaining, in contrast to for example the illicit drug market. Furthermore there a tension in the business model. To make the most from them counterfeit notes need to be of high value ($50 and $100) which are likely to attract more scrutiny when used. For lower denominations such as $10 or $20 many more transactions will have to take place to put them into use, raising the time and labour cost. Businesses learn from counterfeit ‘attacks’ and therefore are risky to hit more than once. All that makes it difficult to keep a counterfeit currency business going.
This is an interesting intersection: Counterfeit currency is characterised by many embedded techno-material factors such as the advent of desktop publishing and laser printing. The US Federal Reserve in 2003 note the cost of creating plausible counterfeits (Judson and Porter 2003). However distributed digitally enabled manufacturing appears to have brought some of the startup/fixed capital costs down (Li and Rocheteau 2011) and offset lithography can produce quality notes rapidly (NCA). Distribution is still very costly as they must be widely spread in order to be successful used. That may be an area where things have changed given the expansion in money mule and other distributed money laundering activity which lends itself more easily to counterfeit currency distribution. Therefore the counterfeit business has a number of challenges. It needs to maintain a throughput of users who can be upskilled to effectively make use of the product, be technologically adept, and has to manage the physical process of distribution. Second contribution I make: The paper takes the approach that counterfeit current distribution use is a rational and expressive form of techno-crime (Hayward 2007).. While one approach has been to analyse techno-crime as a modality (Van Nguyen 2021) I analyse it as a material context constitutive of criminal actors’ capacities. As technology is now so embedded we have to move past that and think of tech as part of the material matrix combining different technological forms and virtual and real world spaces.
The field make an effective case study because: Cryptomarkets are an effective part of that matrix. They are open, anonymous markets hosted using the Tor onion hosting service. Combined with bitcoin or another cryptocurrency payment system they allow goods to be sold in relative anonymity and without buyer and seller meeting. The seller posts a product listing and the buyer pays using a decentralised cryptocurrency which is held in market escrow. The package is sent to them through postal service, courier or dead drop. On receipt, or after a certain amount of time has elapsed, the payment is released to the seller. At least in theory that is the process, however increasingly sellers require payments immediately, showing how power shifts in a retail market towards the seller (Childs et al. 2020). The main meat of cryptomarkets is illicit drugs. The vast majority of the trades taking place are in illicit drugs. Despite the drug trade up to that point being cash heavy, a part of it was able to transfer to being a digitally mediated, remote business. Alongside drug markets, other trades existing, in for example malware, stolen goods, and counterfeit currency. Counterfeit currency is an example of a product which in theory could adapt well to cryptomarket distribution but that faces several conceptual and practical challenges in doing so.
Show direction: This article will examine the micro-process of last mile distribution and the interface between user purchase and practice. Research Questions this paper addresses:
- What crime scripts are used by currency vendors and buyers?
- How do counterfeit vendor and user make use of the technical/material qualities of the notes?
- How does the social structure of the vendor-user relationship work with or against the CS?
- How does counterfeit currency operate as part of its own technical assemblage
Introduce the conceptual construct: the criminal community shares and tests the crime script against real world practice. Scripts are not wholly evolved and are going to be adapted all the time. The community closes the loop on that. The crime script consists of three basic stages prepare/pre-empt, doing/actualizing, end state/reset. It has to function as a whole set, a failure in one element cause the script to cease functioning. The crime script encapsulates the conditions for the act to occur, the preparation, entry/action and exit requirements and the post-condition. Dividing the script into its strategic and tactical components allows interventions to be planned which disrupt the criminal opportunity.
How the large case set links to the concept: Cryptomarkets are a place of ‘offender convergence’ (Felson 2006) characterized by ‘extended co-offending’ (Felson 2009), and they have some unique qualities as criminogenic spaces. Offenders can liaise and share intelligence and material without meeting. They provide a quality feedback loop where buyers discuss and compare products. They can be a testing ground for new products and new criminal business models. The particular cryptomarket hosting Benjamin is an open model. Anyone can join. Most goods and services can be offered, other than child pornography. Vendors may restrict customers according to location, willingness to spend, or a preexisting relationship.
The research design is constrained by the data: The project uses a single case study of a discussion between counterfeit dollar vendor and their customers. The discussion takes place over a long time period, allowing the evolving practice of both vendor and users to be followed. Mapping vendor and user crime scripts allowed me to systematise my understanding of their practice and develop a generalised outline of each players’ approach to executing their crime.
The paper makes a methodological contribution: Methodologically, the paper addresses a challenge of criminological research with dispersed entities, non-synchronous interactions, non-human. Draw on existing social research such as ethnography of infrastructures, multi-sited ethnography, hybrid ethnography ‘Material’ = : I analyse the technology used in material terms rather than as the crime medium. Beyond tech as a modality/fabric for crime and onto tech as a material context constitutive of actors.
Outline the general process of how I got here: Crime script analysis is a sequence analysis method of criminal knowledge formation. It follows four broad stages: Preparation – identification of opportunity and means. Assembly – putting the criminal into place, assembling the necessary precursors. Commission – the crime commission itself. Post-activity – getting away, extracting value, other necessary end states to reset the sequence (Chainey and Alonso Berbotto 2021). Each stage can be broken down into further elements depending on need. Dehghanniri and Borrion (2016) model the process to produce the crime script. The first step defines the problem, such as wage theft or dumping waste in the environment. It also shows what the crime script is intended to do which guides the analyst to the level of detail needed. An analysis that will be used in deploying surveillance will have different needs to one which seeks to change compliance rules. The second step elaborates the information requirements which flow from that: the analyst might be interested more in how this crime is committed, who is involved, and/or what facilitates it. The narrative analysis was key to allowing me to understand much more about how the script was developed and finessed by the group.
The specific process, neatly: The discussion was first open coded and then recoded according to the crime script stages for both the vendor and currency users as in table 1. Critical stages, cast and conditions for each process, vendor and user, were identified as detailed by Thompson and Chainey (2011). Contextualisation codes such as ‘Deference to community’ were also created. Context codes were in part derived from the existing literature, for example, the importance of claims to ‘insider’ roles and knowledge (Holt and Lee 2020). This was done in order to place the CSA in a material context. Matrix coding was then conducted cross tabulating the contextualizing codes with the CSA codes. These codes fed into the crime script coding, for example, technical features were coded and then distributed according to their function in the precondition/actualisation parts of the script. That exposed the technical, stealth, performative and organisational features at different stages of the CS execution. Cases were created for each contributor to the forum and the attribute function was used to record their role/stance. Text was coded to every contributor. Possible roles were: vendor, valid buyer, sock puppet. The forum has 72 cases of which x were xx. Vignettes were created for each participant, providing a sketch of their participation, for example, whether they changed position or left over time. Open data principles have been applied. The dataset is available and archived by the University of Edinburgh.
Meta criminal context: Benjamin (gender unknown) is a re-seller for the supplier Willy.Clock who had developed a public profile at the time and was known to the other members of the forum, and who was supported by another distributor, Mr. Mouse (Krebs 2014). Willy.clock is a Uganda based counterfeiter, Ryan Andrew Gustafson who was arrested in 2014 and who pled guilty in 2018 to charges of counterfeiting.
There is a network of sites validating each other so participants do not take anything on trust: Another onion site hosted support for note users and was used to validate the identities of distributors as a basic authenticity check. There was a well known distribution logic at work: The NCA states that criminal networks operate by breaking bulk production into smaller units that can be distributed and used by lower level criminals, so this appears to be a case of that being done. Benjamin introduces themselves in what becomes a long thread where buyers return to critique their product and debate how it should be used. Benjamin responds by defending the product, saying that buyers are using it improperly, and eventually agreeing that the counterfeit notes are not what they were.
Define the process in stages: The process is one of a spiral where the notes are tested in real world use and refined. The scrip derived from Benjamin and friends is therefore part of a meta-crime script involving the testing and innovation of the production process. Benjamin’s second stage role meant they could palm off some of the responsibility for poor quality product onto the supplier. The discussion was characterised by in depth explorations of the technical features of the notes, their consistency and reliability. Some participants appeared to be much closer to Benjamin and interacted with them outside the forum via a messaging service. Contributors ranged from these close accomplices to more casual users of the notes who were much less committed to the crime script.
The group context: To an extent the group as a whole worked on developing their crime script through comparing different experiences with using the notes, their opinions on their technical qualities, and advice about how to successfully use them without being detected. In this way what mattered to them became apparent. The technical qualities of the notes were a means to an end: their ability to use them successfully and then use the knowledge gained to buy more. Successful repeat use was
The interactional context: the forum allows for critique and requires a level of commitment from Benjamin. Benjamin introduces themselves as a known quantity, with feedback from another cryptomarket, the Black Market. They set out the security features of the product they are selling. It is claimed to be single ply, a security strip on the $100 dollar note, the ability to pass the pen test, a watermark, accurate colour using offset lithography, colour shifting ink, microprinting, a believable physical texture and resilience when dunked in water. The product seems to be high quality. Benjamin immediately adds a caveat. The bills do not contain magnetic ink, ferrofluid added to the bill to give it a distinct magnetic signature. That allows machines to distinguish between denominations and to reject fakes. Benjamin begins with a clear statement: any problems in passing the currency off as real are due to the failure of the buyer to adhere to an effective protocol.
Narrative breakdown: the thread begins positively. It all began so well – the golden period: sales and feedback are good. Benjamin begins with $100 notes and teases customers with the prospect of $50s and $20s. Early on after the thread begins they claim to have sold 300 $100 notes, for a face value of $30,000. Amounts purchased ranged up to 100 notes, $10,000 face value. They charge 50% of the face value of the notes though bulk buyers can obtain a larger discount. Buyers express excitement and anticipation for Benjamin receiving new stocks to pass onto them. The first bat h is well received. The second batch Benjamin sends out much less so. The quality of the notes deteriorates and users become disgruntled. A back and forth happens with one critic called out as a shill, and gradually disgruntlement builds as other users who had previously praised the notes now begin to question them. At this point the forum starts to divide. Users who have success with the notes allege that it is buyer failure to use them properly that is responsible for any problems.
If anybody finds their notes so atrocious, dunk them in water and wash all of the pen treatment off. It won’t pass the pen test, but it will sure as hell feel like real money … Alternatively, read through the forums and pay attention to what others to do give them their own touch. I’m not into replying to this negative BS, but I’ll manage to give you these few pointers.” Benjamin
One instance of a general phenomenon: As with other illicit and legal markets, there is a tendency towards bulking up sales following initial success. Benjamin decides to set a five note minimum order. Some buyers respond that this freezes them out. Note quality starts to decline:
“Lastly, and this is what is everyones biggest complain/concern so far, is the feel. Unless the clerk is wearing gloves I don’t know how they wouldn’t notice most of the bills waxy feel in comparison to the real notes. So that would be a dead give away to people who handle money regularly.”
Narrative turn with some colour: There then begins a conflictual phase in which Benjamin alternatively defends themselves and disappears for a time, stating they are working on fixing the problems with the notes that buyers have started to identify. Some participants sought to defend the operation from criticism. In one section, the discussion focused on security researcher Krebs (link) was sent counterfeit notes which he described as not being of very good quality. Several participants explained this away as a fakeout by Willy.Clock, the producer:
I think it was an inside operation by WC and Mouse if I had to guess, and ya thousands and thousands of retailers use Krebs and even catch up with him on Twitter, and everything seen on Krebs gets instantly passed down to loads of other websites and news sites too, if you google Mr Mouse counterfeits he’s all over the place thanks to Krebs.
The aim, they allege, was for the producer to spread misinformation to retailers about what they should look for in counterfeit notes.Complaints pile up on the forum. Orders do not arrive on time, quality suffers and communication with Benjamin becomes patchy. Benjamin stalls for time, promising refunds if the deliveries do not appear, which annoys customers whose money Benjamin has. Benjamin blames the market’s administrative system for problems and asks buyers to contact them directly and pay in bitcoin, triggering another round of criticism as this process gives the buyers no guarantees. The tone of the forum changes. Previous supportive members write long, highly critical posts. Benjamin struggles with justifying the perceived declining quality of the notes and promising improvements. They claim that the loss of quality is a matter of perception, that initial enthusiasm for the notes inflated expectations, and admits to some lower quality notes being shipped due to the influx of new orders limiting their quality control processes. Benjamin is suspended for a time by his supplier for failing to communicate well with their clients, and for not properly prepping the notes before sale, as the supplier begins to worry about the blowback from negative experiences with the notes Benjamin sells.
Benjamin complains about his relationship with the forum and sometimes the supplier, Willy.Clock. There is some suspicion that starting with good stock is a strategy to then switch buyers to less convincing notes. Some buyers acknowledge that they are on the lowest point on the food chain, and are unlikely to be offered supernotes which sell for much more and go to better invested users. Buyers argue with Benjamin and each other about the work they needed to do to the notes to make them look and feel more plausible.
I also went and just tried to play around with a note myself and I sprayed it with acrylic matte spray after putting it in water and drying it off and pressed it in the pages of a book and put a table leg on that. Now it’s fantastic! If the paper is good the rest of the note is great!!
Narrative closure: Benjamin in response goes on sabbatical in order to address the problems with the notes that buyers have identified, returning with what are claimed as notes that pass the pen test and feel close to the real thing. Enthusiasm resumes as these notes are distributed. As this wave of enthusiasm builds, the supplier is arrested, bringing the thread to an end.
Now about the context, the forum is a social space: Benjamin enjoys support from thread participants who advise on fine tuning note design and use. Benjamin had a number of buyers who were very positive about the product. As problems emerged they were accused of being sock puppet accounts. These acolytes proposed that if people were finding problems getting the notes accepted they were doing it wrong. They were following the wrong strategy, or were inherently suspicious individuals who invited greater scrutiny. Benjamin endorses these readings. Although one can never be sure, it did appear that these were genuine accounts who had made purchases through the system. Tell us why we now need to know about crime scripts: The business logic required a supporting chorus of satisfied buyers who could validate the quality of the notes and how they were used, in the form of a shared crime script.
Using the crime script
Start with a basic taxonomy: Participants had various roles: structuring, supporting, guiding, questioning, and various degrees of investment in Benjamin’s success. Some were highly critical of the entire process and said that passing of fake currency was only good for people who could not make it as drug dealers. Others saw their role as validating the genuineness of Benjamin’s efforts. One user, thisoldman, became critical in guiding buyers through the crime script, and users reported success with guidance from them. Thisoldman offered a guide for purchase to passing notes which could be bought through the site. They passed out tips on how to improve the passability of the notes by altering their appearance and feel.
The two separate scripts for Benjamin and their customers are set out side by side in Table 1. There was more information on the customers’ script as they participated much more in the discussion which involved troubleshooting their use of the notes. I have included both as they both centre around the forum in different ways. The forum was crucial to both scripts in different ways.
|Table 1 Crime Script|
|Entry||Set up cryptomarket account||Target scoping|
|Precondition||Bulk order from supplier
Choose high traffic setting
Select young cashier/busy time
|Instrumental initiation||Receive orders from buyers
Pricing and divide up note ‘packs’
|Identify high value/good return good|
|Instrumental actualisation||Process orders, select consumer/delivery||Buy goods/swap out cash|
|Continuation||After sales support/manage reputation/expectations on forum||Recycle bad product into good notes|
|Post condition||Close the feedback loop with supplier||Transfer legit cash|
|Exit/reset||Cash out/repost||Return to thread/leave|
Showing there is more than a technical function/aptitude needed: From the point of view of Benjamin, creating a plausible cryptomarket identity was the first technical step. Then they needed to satisfy two reputational requirements. They needed to be in good standing with their supplier in order to secure a large enough order of notes to make redistribution profitable, and to appear both plausible and reliable to the users of the crytpomarket. Buyers were taking a risk buying the notes as they had little recourse if they turned out to be unusable. Throughout the process Benjamin had to calibrate their expectations of what they have, do the technical work of processing and sending orders, review users experience in the forum, send feedback to the supplier and cash out. Engagement with the forum was needed to manage the customer base and keep them involved:
My supplier has just informed me that a rather LARGE shipment is in DHL processing now, and should be coming out of customs shortly. Keep your fingers crossed people!”,,
A notable aspect of this was Benjamin’s willingness to expose their own process. A key instrumental precondition was prepping and batching notes for distribution and Benjamin wrote often about the process of preparing the notes, showing how the process might go wrong and acknowledging the uncertanties:
It means that MrMouse and I among other retailers are having to treat notes ourselves with makeshift methods from the boss, and we aren’t artists like Willy, so we struggle. We don’t have access to the chemicals that Willy does on his end for proper treatment. We get the job done (as in your notes will definitely pass the pen test), but recouping the pure authentic feel has been a challenge.
Closing the feedback loop with the supplier was necessary to continue the script. Benjamin had to give feedback to Willy.Clock and inform the forum of how the notes were changing in response.
Benjamin and some key contributors maintained a modus operandi document, effectively their own literal crime script, to guide users through the process. The document involved ensuring users did not try too high and invite suspicion, for example, by buying a one dollar item with a one hundred dollar note.
Showing how the findings are structured: The relationship between Benjamin and their buyers was one where Benjamin acted as an avatar for the notes. From the point of view of the user the central elements of the process were identifying a point to swap out fake notes for real ones, turn the counterfeit into goods that can be used or returned for cash or otherwise realise real money from the fake notes. That could involve working with an insider at a bank or a retail outlet where there would be considerable cash flow. Most contributors however used them at retail level by selecting a plausible target and time of day to buy small value items with a large note. Users selected targets according to their judgment on whether the note would be accepted. Some split targets by denomination, using $20s and $50s in busy outlets, or buying more $100s when they were confident the note quality and the target merited it. In their discussion the buyers mentioned how they slipped the counterfeits into the supply chain. Their varied tactics were aimed at laundering bad notes into good. Buying a small value item with $50 or $100 notes and obtaining change would do that. However there was a risk that cashiers would be more likely to scrutinise or refuse large value notes for small value items. Another route to actualisation was buying easily cashable tokens such as money cards.
A labour structure was in evidence in some cases. Most buyers used the notes as individuals. One buyer claimed to be running a larger operation with a team who would spend the notes. There was a sense that these were not major players and would be buying small amounts to use in ways that would not attract attention.
They discussed various failures and how to exit the scene after notes were rejected. None reported the police being called in response to an attempt to use fake notes.
Give a feel for the process: A skill promoted was the ability to work the notes into a consistent product, using the inevitably variable supply provided by Benjamin to produce something consistently workable:
My only issue now is that this batch was different then the last one, not because of quality but because Ink clearly did something wrong to the paper, personally I shut the fuck up and just fixed it myself by putting them in water like I said before, but some people just think they should get supernotes in the mail and not have to touch anything because they are really petty customers, so in your best interest Ink we think you should fix
Linking both ends together: Material skills were in evidence. Working the notes showed how the physical qualities of the notes were seen as features that had to be enacted in practice, through a combination of the ability of the buyer to work the notes into plausible currency, select the right target and approach in the right way. The combination of technique and technology came together to enact the counterfeit currency as a technology applied to a specific situation. In that sense the currency is only enacted in place.
Remind the reader of the context: Distribution of counterfeit currency in this way is an example of a hybrid crime combining online distribution of the product and offline implementation of the crime, actually using the notes in a fraudulent way. The script required understanding the meta-criminal context in which Benjamin and the users operated. Benjamin was a secondary vendor for a primary note producer. Therefore they had to manage both their supply and manage expectations within the darknet community about the effectiveness of the notes. Benjamin’s second stage role meant they could palm off some of the responsibility for poor quality product onto the supplier but still needed to maintain a reasonably high hit rate among their customers. It was vital in order to keep selling the notes that users reported success with them. This is not an unusual element of digital crime. Some organisations have guides and helplines for both associates and victims in order to ensure the script goes smoothly, allowing for negation between victim and offender (Hernandez-Castro, Cartwright, and Stepanova 2017). A further analysis is invited which treats the counterfeit notes as part of a criminal assemblage. In this perspective the discourse around it, the production and distribution system, is part of a set of practices that produce the product as a workable entity.
Fit it into the literature: Though cryptomarkets focus on drug distribution some attempt to branch out into sales of weapons, counterfeit cigarettes and other goods such as counterfeit currency. This example shows that the system can be adapted so that the cryptomarket takes over the last mile of counterfeit distribution, and also the problems adapting the cryptomarket verification and quality control systems to a very different product. The community had great difficulty verifying the quality of the notes and had a single point of failure in the person of Benjamin, making it much less resilient than the section of the cryptomarket dealing in illicit drugs.
Size the issue: Overall the counterfeit trade in the cryptomarkets is fragile compared to the drug trade, as many participants recognised in their discussions. Another reason for the lack of resilience was the limited profit to be gained. Notes sell for 50% of face value. Therefore most profit is made in the production/distribution phases. When users take into account risk and the expense of crime commission the likely profit is much less than the theoretical profit of using counterfeit notes. Profits are further reduced if the user needs to employ others and share profits as part of their business model.
Talking about limits shows how the findings can be adapted in other contexts: The context limits some inferences that can be drawn. Participants do not disclose their country of operation. The darknet can be accessed from many countries, though it is difficult to access it from China. Data show most darknet use takes place in European, North America and Australia and the language/tone of the participants indicate they are based in the USA. References to the Federal Reserve and the fact they are using dollars in retail transactions indicates they are American. What is missing? There are a number of dark players in the cryptomarkets. The administrators and moderators govern who gets to create an account. They can ban accounts though a persistent hostile user can easily recreate another. Benjamin’s crime script is oriented towards his or her actions in the forum and there is a missing part to it, their relationship with their supplier.
What’s new/different? The cryptomarket provides a space for discussion and a hub for distribution. The counterfeit vendors/users employ an adaptable crime script. There is more variation in the buyers’ script. Benjamin’s script is constrained by the quality of the product available and the willingness of the buyers to pay for and use it. To an extent the group as a whole worked on developing their crime script through comparing different experiences with using the notes, their opinions on their technical qualities, and advice about how to successfully use them without being detected. In this way what mattered to them became apparent. The technical qualities of the notes were a means to an end: their ability to use them successfully and then use the knowledge gained to buy more. Successful repeat use was vital in order to make any kind of return, which was why consistent supply was so important to them. New context: insertion of market forum into crime script development and adaption. Discussion forums are critical in criminal evolution and innovation and we can also include other media such as Telegram channels in this. Users hybridise different modes to produce a workable modus operandi.
Why technology matters in one sense: The forum has certain technological affordances that matter. It is an example of a self-generated hierarchy. Why technology matters in another sense, and why we need to modify what we understand by crimetech: the notes have to be worked in different stages to make them plausible to different audiences, from the buyer to the target. That goes from batching to distribution, prepared for use and then distributed. Both Benjamin and the buyers treated the notes they received. Crime is embodied as craft work, recognising the personal, emotional labour that has to be involved in crime commission.
Finesse existing theory: The organisational context and the character of the criminal relationship is quite limited as Bejnamin has no control over the buyers so this relationship is voluntary. In comparison money mules are sometimes coerced through threats or debt relationships [ref]. The character of the crime is one of mutual exchange. It can be understood in terms of an dapted rational choice theory, but with added recognition of positionality/identity as motivating factors, materiality. Both vendor and buyer morally orient themselves to each other and the crime itself. ‘Rational’ is often drawn narrowly in terms of interests and should include the person’s identification of their own moral positioning in relation to the criminal activity, their motivation.
What can I infer? Both Ink and the buyers engage in innovation and fine tuning of their crime scripts. For Ink, reputation management and playing the role of the vendor willing to learn and respond to their critics is a key part of maintaining their status. For the buyers, they discuss how to successfully make use of the currency, avoid incurring legal liability while adapting to potential surveillance conditions.
What are the consequences of this paper (and I’d better rethink the title now): I have argued that understanding the crime script in this context is something supported by the community as a social organization and also as a material structure enacted through craft practices. As a consequence, intervention might consider taking place at the level of craft labour. There is a great degree of tacit knowledge involved in criminal enterprises. Crime script analysis tends to focus on the technical steps which foregrounds a rational choice approach when it comes to attacking the incentive structure. This analysis shows how reputation and plausibility are crucial elements at different stages, and the labour needed to achieve them.
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