Hiring a hitman on the web: Can contractual violence be added to your online shopping cart?

August 14, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer

Nowadays, almost anything you want to buy, you can find online. And according to new research from social scientist Dr. Thomas Holt, the current Director of the MSU School of Criminal Justice, hiring a hitman doesn't seem to be an exception.

Dr. Holt's research, which was completed in collaboration with doctoral student Ariel Roddy, found that hitmen advertise their services on both the open web and the dark web - and their services are less expensive than one might think.

Dispelling myths about the dark web

For many, the dark web seems like a mysterious place on the internet only the most experienced hackers and technologically savvy users can access. However, according to Dr. Holt, this couldn't be further from the truth. 

"The dark web is simply a series of websites only accessible through a free downloadable tool and built-in web browser, through services like Tor, explains Dr. Holt. "This software hides who you are and what you're doing by routing your internet traffic with other Tor users, creating a clustered network that makes your online activity hard to trace." 

"When we think about illicit markets online, like those selling drugs or guns, we assume these are very savvy, sophisticated operators with tons of technical experience.  Some are but there are also a large number of people with limited background knowledge, some of whom are running scams or schemes based on general human interactions," explained Dr. Holt.

Hiring a hitman online: an anomaly or a common dark web practice?

Dr. Holt's research shows that the cost of hiring a hitman online varies, but averages around $20,000. The price fluctuates based on the method used, the experience level of the hitman and the person targeted (often depending on the target’s social status). 

So, how often do buyers actually hire hitmen online? While data on the frequency of contracted violence is limited, Dr. Holt says that the data surrounding the advertiser's pricing could be interpreted to reflect an actual demand. 

"Even if these advertisements aren't real, there's still a sufficient number of ads to suggest that someone out there is paying a portion of these actors. There wouldn't be so many if someone wasn't actually getting paid out of it," said Dr. Holt. "The data surrounding the pricing information available tells us the vendors are conscious of a reasonable price point that someone would be willing to pay, and they're advertising that." 

However, the legitimacy of these advertisements is still questionable. "Even though the pricing wasn't excessive, many requested a portion of the money up-front - meaning there's an increased risk to buyers of being ripped off."

According to Dr. Holt, it's also possible that some of these advertisements could be sting operations - meaning that law enforcement agencies are putting out ads in the hopes of catching someone attempting to solicit contracted violence. 

How Hollywood's hitmen are more fiction than fact

While many vendors online boast previous military experience, law enforcement experience, or connection to larger criminal activities, Dr. Holt negates the stereotypes of professional hitmen we see in movies and other media. 

"Usually, contract violence doesn't take the form of an action movie-style hitman who kills tons of people and is never caught. It's mostly common criminals who engage in violence at low rates and see varying levels of success. Our data leads us to believe that those selling these services online are very similar," said Dr. Holt.

Learn more about this and related research here.