The Dark Web: What It Is and How to Protect Yourself

The Dark Web: What It Is and How to Protect Yourself

Michael Archambault

by Michael Archambault

Senior Writer

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  • This illustration shows a hooded man as a hacker breaking into someone's personal data info. Getty Images

    The “dark web.”

    It’s an ominous-sounding term that crops up in discussions about internet security. So you might be wondering what the dark web is and how it can affect you. You could find yourself in trouble if your information shows up in this dark layer of the internet — and may even find your financial security and sensitive personal information at risk.

    Let’s break down the dark web, explaining precisely what it is, what is found on dark web sites, and what to do if your personal information makes its way into its grasp.

    We won’t be explaining how to access dark web sites in this piece, but rather its potentially harmful effects and how you can counteract them if needed.

    What Is the Dark Web?

    The dark web is a portion of the internet that is intentionally hidden and made difficult to access. The internet that you generally browse every day comprises the Clear Web and the Deep Web. The Clear Web is open to access and can usually be found via search engines such as Google.

    The Clear Web and Deep Web

    The Penny Hoarder is a great example of a site on the clear web (also known as the surface web) — we are easy to find, and you can access our content without paying.

    The deep web refers to anything hidden from the primary web but accessible using your regular web browser. Popular examples of the deep web include content behind paywalls or password-protected accounts.

    If you love Netflix’s content or have a paid subscription to a news service, those are examples of the deep web. They are locked but can be accessed with the right credentials.

    To be clear: The deep web and the dark web aren’t the same thing, though the two phrases are occasionally used interchangeably.

    The Dark Web

    The dark web is a part of the internet that you can’t merely open your web browser of choice (Edge, Safari, Chrome, Firefox, etc.) and access by typing in a web address or using search engines. You’d need a Dark Web browser (although there are special dark web search engines too).

    You need special tools, such as Tor, to access this secretive and dark layer of the web. Content on the dark web isn’t always illegal, but due to its anonymized and private nature, the majority is illicit.

    What Is on the Dark Web?

    The dark web allows individuals to share information freely and with anonymity, making it an excellent place for criminal and illegal activities. Many areas feature Dark Web Commerce Sites from which you can buy illegal substances, services and information— some information may be which you don’t want out in the open.

    Illegal Services and Information

    For example, if a hacker were to gain access to a system with your private information, such as your email address, Social Security number, credit card data or medical information, they could try to break into your bank or credit card accounts, or sell your information to others via dark web sites. Dark web search engines can also be used to mine private info.

    Your information isn’t the only illegal data floating around the dark web. Here is a list of some of the most common illegal activities and content on layer of the internet:

  • The sale of trojans and other malicious software
  • Services for attacks on computer systems
  • Espionage and specific targeting services
  • Sales of illegally obtained credentials and information
  • Intellectual property and patented trade information
  • Pornography depicting illegal forms of sexual activity
  • Access to forged documents, such as government IDs
  • The Potential Silver Lining

    As you can see, the dark web is generally a place you’ll never want to go. However, there are a few good uses for the dark web, including the ability for individuals in countries with heavy government censorship to communicate and services for journalists to communicate with anonymous sources.

    What to Do if Your Information Is on the Dark Web

    First, you’ll need a way to know if your information is on dark web sites, but we don’t just recommend diving in with a dark web browser to find dark web marketplaces.

    Many popular security companies offer services to scan the dark web for your critical information, such as bank account numbers, passwords and more, alerting you if your info is discovered. Many password managers also offer the same capabilities to keep you secure.

    Pro Tip

    Popular dark web scanning services include LifeLock by Norton, IdentityForce by TransUnion and Experian. Two of our favorite password managers with dark web scanning are 1Password and LastPass.

    Actions You Need to Take

    If your information does make it onto the dark web, you should treat it like any other data breach.

    Some basic steps include determining exactly what information has been stolen. Then change your passwords and increase security with Two-Factor Authentication on all breached accounts.

    You may also need to freeze your credit or debit card numbers that have been leaked onto the dark web. Then, you’ll want to monitor your accounts closely for any unauthorized activity and, if needed, contact an identity theft protection company.

    Pro Tip

    Here’s what to do, step by step, if you become a victim of a data breach. 

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    Is the dark web illegal?

    The dark web itself isn’t illegal, but much of the content found on it is. Asking if the dark web is illegal is akin to asking whether back-alley deals are illegal; while trading goods in a back alley isn’t illegal, you likely won’t find legit things happening there, so it’s probably best to stay away.

    What happens on the dark web?

    A wide variety of activity occurs on the dark web, most of which is illegal. The dark web is known for its sale of illegal services and items. Sales that occur on the dark web can include narcotics, illegal firearms, restricted pornography and the sale of personal information from security breaches.

    Why shouldn’t you access the dark web?

    The dark web is full of illegal content and services, and if you aren’t careful, you could quickly find yourself in the middle of such activities. It can be difficult to navigate the dark web safely. 

    Additionally, due to the types of people that you may come across on the dark web, you need to have extra guard up to protect yourself against hacking and other malicious attacks.

    Can you be tracked on the dark web?

    The dark web was designed to provide anonymity and privacy for its users. While it is extremely difficult to track users who utilize the dark web and its services, it isn’t impossible.

    Is Tor illegal?

    No, Tor is not an illegal service and it may be used to help create a more private and anonymous browsing experience. This is ideal for individuals who need to circumvent government censorship and defend themselves against tracking. 

    Of course, using Tor or the Tor browser does allow you to access the dark web, so it is not all sunshine and rainbows. In a toolkit of dark web tools, Tor is essential to visit dark websites and remain anonymous.

    Michael Archambault is a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder specializing in technology.

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    The Dark Web: What It Is and How to Protect Yourself