Interview With a DarkNet Vendor: VamonosDab
I’ve been searching for a Darknet vendor willing to be interviewed for a while now. I’m interested in not only advice and experiential knowledge, but also in a basic profile of the type of person who was attracted to the Darknet markets to vend products. I was put into contact with this particular vendor last month after seeing an ad on Reddit and we have been corresponding since then. VamonosDab has been vending on and off for about four years on the Darknet markets, starting with Silk Road 1. He has a wide customer base great standing on the sites. He works hard to maintain the reputation and quality of his products.
One of the most eye-opening things about this interview for me was that VamonosDab treats this like a business. He thinks and acts the way someone who owns a legitimate business would. He is concerned with things like customer service, product quality control, and shipping and supply chains. He has two employees who work for him. VamonosDab didn’t remind me of the guys that I bought pot from in high school. He reminded me of any other small business owner I’ve met throughout my life. Unconditionally dedicated and motivated.
Proof of identity (vendor profile on Evolution: http://k5zq47j6wd3wdvjq.onion.rent/
Joseph Meehan: Who are you and what do you do?
VamonosDab: VamonosDab, A Darknet Market vendor.
JM: How long have you been vending on the Darknet?
VD: I started in 2011 when Silk Road 1 was up, on and off until 2014.
JM: Do you consider yourself a Darknet activisit?
VD: Yes. I do. The Darknet is great for avoiding all of the red tape of regulation. It comes with the pluses and minuses of that. Allows me to do what I want to do without paying [people/organizations] i don’t agree with.
JM: Does the Darknet need activists? Or does it have the structure and support to exist on its own legs, without anyone really fighting for its existence?
VD: Darknet activism is internet activism because it exists as a result of open source coding, equal access to the internet, and generally liberal internet activist ideals. If the open internet exists, the darknet exists. That fight is the same.
JM: What drove you to the Darknet Markets?
VD: Initially, financial necessity. It’s really hard to start some kind of sales operation legit – I mean, I deal with cannabis so there’s a question of legitimacy vs the black market also – the financial barrier to legitimacy is absurd, like with anything else. With cannabis it takes at least tens of thousands of dollars to get something legitimate going. The biggest financial barrier [on the Darknet] is the initial vendor bond/registration fees. After that, since you’re selling product directly to the user you can sell it at small quantities, no minimum volume to satisfy a distributor, you just pay the post office a shipping fee.
Some beliefs play into it somewhat – being that my livelihood has been made off of things the state has generally frowned upon i’m kind of an anti-statist. I still think about the cops as an enemy because they frown on my lifestyle and they don’t have my interests at heart. Give people the product for money and eliminate the middleman.
I also like that because people are willing to pay a higher price than a distributor, that profit margin helps mitigate risks – Bitcoin crashing, website getting robbed, website crashing, people scamming you – I’ve been robbed through Localbitcoins. The high profit margin helps protect against that. It also helps the customer because they’re getting it directly from somebody without a middle man. The more they pay, the more customers feel entitled to higher service, better quality, rapid communication. They understand you’re receiving more money as a vendor, so if you charge a higher price than competing vendors they expect a higher quality and better service. This develops a culture of high standards of customer service.
A lot of people might take issue with that because it’s easier to get scammed and theres a lot of stories about people getting burned. The vendors that stick around with a good reputation, their reputation is sterling because of their customer service. If you keep the same identity and have a high customer feedback, you can’t get that other than by customer service. It’s really hard to game the system after a certain high volume of orders.
JM: Is there a philosophical or rebellious bent to your choices? You touched on it already, but I’d like to hear more about it.
VD: It certainly gives people who have a rebellious bent an avenue for that behavior. I would definitely put myself in that category. The philosophical thing is an interesting question. It’s a constant dance between experience and ideals. My philosophy has also developed as a result of the Darknet enabling certain ideas I have. I would probably have given up by now on being whatever label I put on myself [without the Darknet]. Despite whatever label I give myself, I wouldn’t have been able to sustain any kind of semblance of that lifestyle without having vended on the Darknet and experiencing the Darknet. Doing it made those ideals stronger, but I would say in some kind of sense I always felt some disdain for capitalist ideals and the behavior it brought out in people. I always felt some alienation from it.
There’s definitely a philosophical or rebellious bent to it is the simple answer.
JM: What direct benefits do you see to operating on the Darknet?
I and the people that help me all have an untraceable cash flow we can use to whatever ends we want and it’s not taxed. It helps enable our lifestyles. I think I can speak for the three people, I think we are all happy in our employment regarding it. We’re all happy and we all do not feel oppressed or that we are compromising some sort of human dignity or not getting paid enough for our time – none of us feel that we are compromising anything for the money that we earn. It does feel earned too. I think we all understand what is going on and we are all down with it. It’s a really simple chain to grasp – we are producing it and then packaging it and then giving it to people who are using it. Occassionally we are giving it to people who are selling it to people who are using it. Even so, we are definitely not paying Walmart or the police or some senator who is drilling for oil, etc. The money is not tied to a bunch of things we don’t agree with.
JM: What’s harder?
VD: The social life, terrible. How do you tell somebody you do something that most people don’t understand and is illegal and sketchy? Even the traditional drug trade, you have to meet people – even if they don’t want to meet you and its chance relationships – on the darknet, that’s not a relationship. I can’t hang out with that person, I can’t date that person, I can’t have a beer with that person.
Can’t really explain it to family. Sometimes you let things slip to friends and you feel weird about it. The constant stress of might there be cops who know what i’m doing – when a package doesn’t arrive is it a scam or am I over because my packages are starting to be intercepted.
A lack of a safety net. The markets do a good job of settling disputes but they aren’t infallible. A lot of new vendors can get easily scammed because a user will see an opportunity to place an order, recieve it and claim they never got it, and the market will side with the customer because the customer has to feel comfortable to spend their money at the market. There’s no real safety net for vendors.
It’s a lot of work. You have to handle everything from sourcing to making to selling to shipping to receiving cryptocurrency. You have to pay somebody too. All of the duties of running a business and little help from the system.
JM: What’s easier?
VD: A lot of the disadvantages are the advantages. In our case if there is a group of people who can trust each other and consistently put out a good thing and please the customers. Then it’s easy to claw your way to the top. It’s easy to beat the prices, any slight scaling in your operation pays off almost immediately.
High returns make financial stress less. At the end of the day I’m able to pay my bills and treat myself to vacation or whatever every once in a while. The money is easier to get to.
I don’t have to file for some kind of business license, I don’t have to pay taxes on every transaction, I don’t have to do a lot of unnecessary bookkeeping.
JM: What’s it been like building a customer base?
VD: Getting started was rough. SR was easy because everyone was at the same spot, it was all kind of new, the blend of naivety and excitement allowed for a lot of trust that doesn’t get exchanged so willingly anymore. But now, why buy something from somebody who has no sales when theres somebody with a comparable thing who has 150 positive transactions. And there’s several websites and now this websearch Grams allows you to search all of the markets at the same time. On reddit r/darknetmarkets a vendor can put up an ad once every 30 days, we put one up, we have several vendor identities across several markets, so we went on the specific subreddits for the darknet markets, such as r/themarketplace, and posted up ads. Tried to be responsive to replies to our posts. We went on forums for the different markets and made similar posts and tried to be responsive. Tried to make ourselves accessible via multiple channels. Getting started is hard. That being said, once you have a customer base it’s strange how your initial reputation weirdly maintains itself. People seem to be more willing to accept that errors on our part are acceptable because of our reputation. There’s times where we are fucking up and we know — its three people without business majors who are running a business – and people are willing to forgive us if the transaction doesn’t go well as long as we try our hardest to correct the error. So we’ve been able to maintain a good reputation across the markets. We’ve had to offer reships and refunds and a lot of attention to detail in the beginning and now we have a little bit of weight to throw around, like “If you’re not down go to somebody else.”
JM: Do you have any strategy regarding bringing in new customers?
VD: We did a price match guarantee where the customer either finalizes early or does a multi-signature transaction and we will match any price. It’s to incentive people to use multisig, the most secure and trust less transaction possible, but a lot of people just aren’t down to get so technical with the Bitcoin protocol, so we offer early finalization. Our reputation allows us to do that.
JM: Which marketplaces are your favorite to vend on? For what reasons?
VD: That is a tough question, especially because they are so pervasive right now. They all kind of have their quirks and adorable qualities and they all kind of have their fucking pains in the ass.
Alpaca is feature-rich, but pretty much irrelevant in terms of volume of transactions and customer interest.
Cannabis Road had a great community and ideology and vibe and distinct brand, but it was robbed blind either by the administrators or an outside force. It had a central escrow that was robbed. I understand some new and old admin are trying to restart it.
Cloud 9 has a good sort of automated Bitcoin withdrawal and finalize options, but the interface is complicated. There’s a dashboard and every order has it’s own string of messages that are hard to access. Theres an inbox and an open chat, the forum is strange, the search is strange – it feels counter intuitive to navigate.
Evolution is a pretty solid market. We have the highest volume of transactions there. The administration are – they didn’t used to have multisig only and i asked them if it was possible and they implemented the feature before they closed my support ticket. They guy responded “We don’t have that,” but left the ticket open. Then he implemented it and said “There you go :)” and closed the ticket. They are duking it out between agora and silk road 2. Biggest market, so that’s negative attention from the authorities focused there. Moronic customer behavior is going to be highly represented there. Scammers are going to be highly represented there. That’s not really their fault. However they do seem just interested in it for the money. Cloud 9 at least talks about charity. Whether or not that should be held against [Evolution] I don’t know.
The Marketplace has secure systems in place. All transactions have to be multisig escrow. It has a really tech-savvy community, but the problem with that is it’s so esoteric that there is not a lot of customer activity.
The rest of them have their niches but its hard for them to stick out among the big ones.
JM: What’s your opinion on the different transaction options? E.g. Multi-signature, escrow. What works and what doesn’t?
VD: The time is ripe for some kind of intuitive yet secure interface for multi-sig escrow transactions. Because the very clear problem – as it has happened many times – in all these cases sites had centralized escrow and that big pool of money got robbed, leaving the site unfunded and buyers without their product and vendors without their money. The way it plays out is either the buyer pays for the product and the vendor doesn’t ship it because they don’t have the money, or the vendor ships it and then the site has no money, even if the buyer finalizes the vendor gets no money.
Multi-sig is trust less in that neither the site nor the buyer nor the vendor can get the money without the agreement of one of the other two parties, either the vendor and the buyer, the vendor and website or the buyer and the website decide where the money goes. The issue with that is that most buyers don’t know how to operate it. Some sites have managed to make it easy and the site handles the transaction, but the issue with that is that if the website goes down then the vendor and buyer are similarly left without recourse unless they have the technical expertise, so it eliminates that advantage of not needing the website. When there are buyers and vendors who are both proficient in signing transactions, then multi-sig is far and away the best option. But that is so rarely the case as to almost make it unfeasible.
Finalize early kind of exposes the vendor to scrutiny unduly and exposes the buyer to scamming unduly. In the case of an honest vendor and buyer it works out but if one of them is faithless it works to the detriment of the other.
Centralized escrow does tend to work well in terms of weeding out scam vendors because its a lot harder for a vendor to scam a buyer when the buyer needs to receive their product before releasing the funds. It’s a lot harder for the buyer to make the mistake of losing the funds or releasing them to the vendor early when a good marketplace handles the transaction. The issue with that is, of course, it will get robbed. Time and time again the centralized escrow gets robbed. When one person gets access to the wallet all of the money is gone. Putting that trust in the administrators is dangerous. Its only morals, and morals become questionable to people when faced with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
JM: How do you deal with the marketplaces being shut down or being robbed? Do you lose customers or do they follow you over to new marketplaces?
VD: To be honest, I was really shocked by the ease with which customers found us on other markets when Cannabis Road got shut down. I still have a list somewhere of unfulfilled orders from Cannabis Road since that market was shut down – I was keeping them in case people found me. More than half the people found us. I was surprised by the amount of people who had our information from Cannabis Road written down so that when the site was shut down they were still able to access us on Bitmessage and other sites.
The customer base wasn’t the issue, it was the money loss. At any given time we have about two thousand dollars of floating Bitcoin – waiting to finalize, waiting for confirmation or being tumbled or not yet converted to cash. The biggest chunk of that amount is from escrow in the markets. When a market gets shut down it amounts to big losses.
Our presence on several markets and the aforementioned markets I talked about help mitigate that, so we just grin and bear it. We even ship orders if people have paid but they haven’t finalized when the market gets shut down at a loss just to keep the customer faith and the system going.
JM: Any advice for someone looking to get into the Darknet Marketplaces? For a complete beginner?
VD: Do not underestimate the effects it has on the other areas of your life. There is this kind of myth, at least in my mind there was, that you can keep this kind of seperate and on the side and hidden, but just like anything else it becomes a part of you – you become quiet, standoffish, distrustful, a little strange, paranoid. Yeah. It takes a lot of blind faith in lots of things over which you have no control – Bitcoin, faceless customer and website and admins. Just faith in the system to not be able to find you and arrest you. Don’t look at the high profit margins on listings – the high prices on listings – and let the dollar signs in your eyes get to you. Earning the kind of trust and reputation it requires to get there takes time and investment. Bear in mind people can do things like not finalize transactions and you have to wait, which takes several weeks. Sometimes you aren’t getting cash on delivery, you aren’t getting paid until sev weeks after you deliver it. You need some kind of buffer to get started. That being said, once the engine is running those transactions that people are taking forever to finalize are coming in from weeks ago and – just don’t underestimate how long it takes to get the wheels turning. The last thing is you are only beholden to yourself, sot it’s really easy to put off your duties and shipping and production, etc, until tomorrow, but the second people catch wind of laziness or poor service that money stops coming, fast. It’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming unresponsive or letting one or two customers slip through the cracks, but it will come back to haunt you. Anonymity doesn’t guarantee the ability to escape your reputation.
JM: How did you get involved with Bitcoin?
Because of Darknet. A friend in the progressive tech community told me about it in relation to Silk Road and Darknet vending in 2011. I bought some Bitcoin just to geek out on it. I did try some paltry amount of transactions on the first Silk Road before getting put off by the intense demand people had of customer service. I sat on those [Bitcoin] and it was kind of just a cool, fun thing to have until one day I heard they were at some hundreds of dollars per Bitcoin, and I had bought them for tens of dollars per Bitcoin. I sold them, the value plummeted, and I bought them back. That’s how I got my production going. Eventually as legit avenues of cannabis production didn’t pan out for me, I turned my attention to the Darknet and was on Silk Road until it got shut down. Price fluctuations again allowed me to pay off some debt and buy back some Bitcoin at a significant profit. The second time got my attention focused on Bitcoin and I began to see more opportunity focused on producing Bitcoin because it might one day shoot up in value by factors – where as dollars are in my opinion definitely on a strong downward trend.
JM: How has it evolved over time? Obviously the value has had some serious ups and downs, but what about demand and popularity? How have changes in these things affected how you deal with Bitcoin?
VD: Unquestionably it has become more publicly acknowledged – still fringe but more often than not the word rings some bells. At first no one had any clue what I was talking about. Now the name has at least touched their ears. The community has also changed. It was strange and fringe and Wild-West-like when it first started. People would wait for six confirmations, the network was slower so the confirmations were way slower, the nature of exchanges was slower and more conversational. Reminds me of sitting on a porch on a hot day in a place where you just talk with people. Hours of silence didn’t happen. More often than not people would talk about what they were doing with Bitcoin, which if they were anything like me it was all bullshit, but it attracted a lot of intense idealists, libertarians, anti-statists, anti-capitalists, people who felt sort of disenfranchised by the financial system, there was a lot of ideology to it back then.
Now it’s more like “I’m selling these drugs for Bitcoin because it makes more money.” With that comes some stability. Standards of transactions now, they can be more or less immediate. QR codes, phone apps, web sites are starting to accept it. There are some eBay and Amazon clones that sell anything from Cessnas to real estate for Bitcoin. It’s definitely on the rise. Its become less personable. Less strange.
It’s still evolving and still expanding in scope.
JM: Recommended Bitcoin applications, wallets, software, etc.
VD: For the hardcore you can’t beat just getting the bitcoin-qt and bitcoin-d and it’s basically your computer interacting directly with the btc network. You can do anything on the console with them that the protocol allows. However, it’s easy to get frustrated and lost when working from a command line, especially when getting into it to make money.
Ethereum and Electrum are two apps that kind of do a good job of handling the workload and making it simple. In the case of Electrum they keep track of the blockchain and when the user opens up Electrum, it just syncs with the server. You don’t have to dowload the whole blockchain, and it lets you do a lot, but not as much as bitcoin-qt. Any kind of GUI that is handling the work for you is going to come with limits, in terms of capabilities.
Wallets. That depends on their end use. If you’re saving Bitcoin, you really don’t want it to ever be tied to any kind of account and you don’t want to access it regularly from a computer. Its best to use a paper wallet and write down the btc address and the private key on a piece of paper and at the users discretion send money to that address. Whenever they want to access it they can import the funds from the wallet using their private key. Otherwise the money just stays and is safe.
For an active wallet – as a dnet vendor, for that sort of application, i hiughly recommend sending money from the marketplace to a “hot wallet,” like a wallet on blockchain.info, that you access from the Tor network and don’t really concern yourself whether the transaction look like they’re from the darknet markets. You then use a Bitcoin tumbler to send it to a “safe wallet.” You then send it wherever you want. The idea is to never send it from the hot wallet to a place where you expose yourself – a local Bitcoin meetup where people who see who you are for example.
JM: Tell me a little bit about your love of cannabis.
VD: [Laughs] There was a time when that was all I talked about. This is the first time in a long time someone has asked me about it.
It’s so nice. It’s so dependable. Especially now that I produce a cannabis product. It’s always there. It’s given my life purpose. Things to do every day. Fun times with my friends, lots of memories. Helped me keep myself afloat without compromising myself. Allows me to self-medicate, to my detriment and betterment as well. Even if I ever stopped doing it entirely I owe it so much. Love is an appropriate term. It’s a great thing. Its just a plant that is harmless and beautiful.
JM: How long have you been a cannabis activist?
VD: About four years. When I was in a prohibition state I wasn’t so much a cannabis activist as a drug dealer to support a habit and have good times with my friends. When I moved to a medical state the dialogue was so elevated and the education surroudning it was so elevated that it quickly dispelled a lot of the myths I had heard. To some extent I’ve been an activist for four years, and I’ve been an out-and-out bullheaded activist for at least two of those four.
JM: What do you think Mary Jane can do in others’ lives?
VD: It did help me be honest with myself about a lot of things. Gave me a second viewpoint when I first used it. Period of exploration where i felt like i was learning about myself from a new viewpoint. It helps with breaking the cycle and psychological ruts. The person has to be comfortable and open minded or it can do some damage. They may dislike themselves from a different viewpoint.
More practically and backed by science the anti-inflammatory effects are proven. For instance if you have inflamed bowels and you smoke or eat cannabis it can make a big difference. I have met people who have beaten stage-4 non-hodgkins lymphoma by eating a gram a day of hash oil for a month. I think the range of things it can do for people is vast and isn’t well-explored.
JM: You don’t have to answer this one if you don’t want to, but can you give me some insight into your religious beliefs?
VD: [Laughs] H-P-S, God bless the whole crops, and please God don’t let me see no cops.
JM: Are we too far gone in terms of privacy in the United States? Or are the measures we have at our disposal truly capable of maintaining our privacy from the government and any other organization that wants to spy on us?
The measures are way more than capable. The question is are people going to use those measures. The answer seems to be a pretty resounding no. The darknet allows the people who use those measures to meet their ends. But if people don’t start using PGP and anonymous browsing and encryption these measures are going to mean nothing. The state will be able to control the majority of the population and the efforts of the few will be in constant danger of being nullified. Take CISPA, which most people have a running familiarity with, and the way the government was going to alter the fundamental architecture of DNS and was going to alter the structure of the internet and likely fuck up the internet just to be able to prevent certain sites they don’t like from being accessed by people. Things like that at a hardware level or deep coding level at the root of the infrastructure, that effects people using the darknet against their will. It can put an end to that. Unless everyone remains obstinate in maintaining privacy it will be eroded away.