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Dark Commerce

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Dark Commerce

How a New Illicit Economy Is Threatening Our Future

Princeton UP,

15 min read
8 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

The dark side of the economy is growing. Unless people fight back, it could wreck the world’s societies.

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Scholar Louise I. Shelley’s startling overview of international crime – “a $1.6 to $2.2 trillion” annual operation – unveils crime’s broad, destructive impact on society and the planet. The internet has fueled dramatic growth in illicit trade. With a few clicks, anyone can enter an online black market for anything from rhino horns to ransomware. Society pays a price, including e-waste dumping, unregulated mining, deforestation, counterfeit agrochemicals, trade in endangered animals and stolen clean energy credits.


In the course of 4,000 years of civilization, criminal commerce changed with the times.

Crime pays very well. International crime experts believed that the dark economy took in as much as $2.2 trillion yearly, as of 2014. That’s about 1.5% of the world’s gross domestic product, so $1.50 of every $100 consumers spend on goods and services worldwide is ill-gotten. Data indicate illicit revenues are rising faster now than ever before. 

Criminal commerce’s history divides into three distinct eras. The first is the rise of civilization and exchange-based economic systems. This led to the development of nation-states that protected and preserved power and wealth from theft and fraud. The second era included the age of exploration and the subsequent expansion of trade and commerce, during which nations used illicit resources as policy tools to undermine their competitors and capture emerging markets.

The third era arose from the burgeoning of technology after World War II, and it continues today. This era is generating new categories of criminal commerce and shifting operations from the physical world to the internet and ...

About the Author

Louise I. Shelley is creator and leader of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University. She also wrote Human Trafficking and Dirty Entanglements.

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