9 of the Most Coveted Items on the Black Market

The $10 trillion economy of all the world’s informal markets would be the second-largest in the world (second to the United States), if formally tallied, according to the International Economic Journal. Anything from rhino horn to copyrighted material, to the most recent fad, Tide detergent, may be found through these illegal outlets of commerce. These shadow markets especially thrive in places where resources are scarce, organized crime and poverty are high, and taxes are low. Illegally acquired goods can either be cheaper (stolen goods) or more expensive (dangerous, rare, or smuggled goods) than legal market prices. Despite being notorious for proliferating crime, the black market continues to flourish due to continued demand for regulated goods.

Here are just some of the most coveted items on the black market today:

Human Body Parts

Blood, bones, hair, and organs1 are among the most desired items sold illegally around the world. Thousands of desperate donors are willing to sell parts of their bodies in exchange for a certain amount of cash. Investigative journalist Scott Carney’s book, The Red Market, examined a refugee camp in India, nicknamed Kidneyville, where women are lined up with exposed abdomens to sell their kidneys. Similar situations are found everywhere: nearly 107,000 organ transplants done in 2010, with an estimated 10% of those transplants using illegally acquired organs, according to the World Health Organization. Many patients flock to China, India, or Pakistan for their surgeries, paying nearly $200,000 for a kidney while organ brokers pay desperate donators only $5,000.

Exotic Pets and Animals

The selling of rare exotic animals has long been part of the black market. Animal poachers fall into the mentality that if the animal becomes extinct, its value will skyrocket. With animal products such as ivory tusks, rhino horns, antelope scarves, and tiger bone pills, the market caters to a broad audience interested in the healing and aphrodisiac elements of these animal parts. The trade also includes living wild animals: rare birds, reptiles, and cats are smuggled into various countries and sold for thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars.

Cosmetics and Plastic Surgery

Cosmetic butt enhancement injections, botox serums, youth creams, and other silicone products threaten the health of many women who buy these products from the black market. Most of the time, use of these products results in serious medical conditions: allergic reactions, irreparable tissue damage, or widespread infection. Women who cannot afford expensive procedures often fall victim to these cosmetic scams, injecting harmful and mysterious substances into their bodies at home without consulting their doctors. Dr. Rhoda Narins, a dermatologist and professor at the New York University School of Medicine, for example, has seen many unfortunate cases involving deaths related to commercial grade silicone injections.

Prescription Drugs and Narcotics

The insatiable demand for unregulated prescription drugs among addicts and dealers contributes to a billion-dollar business. Every year, thousands of pharmacies are raided to decrease the street value of highly desirable drugs. USA Today reports that more than five million people in the United States abuse narcotic painkillers. It’s no surprise that oxycodone and other prescription pain medications continue to be the most abused drugs, with more than 4,048 deaths in 2010, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office. With strict regulation of these drugs by the DEA, addicts must depend on the black market for their supply.

Weapons and Bombs

The illegal arms trade allows for many weapons, bombs, and spy gadgets to fall into the wrong hands, sustaining the gangs and governments of communist countries. For many decades, smuggling weapons across country lines opened up the market for purchases to be made without any middlemen. Insight, a crime research organization, reports four main routes in which U.S. weapons enter into Mexico, supplying Mexico’s government with whatever it needs. According to a recent report by Insight, people in Mexico can simply buy an illegally acquired gun with a few simple internet searches and have the item(s) delivered to their home.


The Assisted Human Reproduction Act, enacted in Canada in 2004, prohibited paying donors for their eggs and sperm, leading to shortages in many sperm banks across Canada. However, sperm is in demand everywhere, but not everyone is willing to pay for a vial of sperm for about $2,000. The black market for sperm is lucrative and dangerous: you don’t know what you’re getting or if the mysterious substance will even work. There’s no regulation or guarantee that it’s safe or STD-free, yet many women’s desire to conceive continues to support the black market for sperm.

Pirated Media and Computer Software

Expensive software and anti-virus programs, music, movies, and other forms of copyrighted materials account for a large source of revenue in the black market. In China, the market is huge for counterfeit software and pirated goods, with many factories producing only counterfeit compact discs and DVDs. A study conducted by the Business Software Alliances reports that software piracy has eliminated 2.4 million jobs and $400 billion in economic activity worldwide to date.

People (Human Trafficking)

Mail-order brides, prostitutes, and child laborers are commonly sold on the black market. One of the most lucrative forms of organized crime, human trafficking operations generate an estimated $32 billion each year, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. As many as 2.4 million people are trapped, sold, and transported while human traffickers reap large profits.

Crude Oil

The illegal distribution of crude oil has long been part of the black market because of strict government regulation. Oil pipelines have been sabotaged by black market thieves, who then sell by the barrel in unrestricted markets. In 2010, the government oil monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) in Mexico detected 712 pipeline oil thefts, which, compared to the 136 thefts detected in 2005, caused crude oil prices to rise to nearly $100 per barrel. Crude oil can be sold for less than half the market price at times of record high oil market prices.

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