The strange and common things you can find for sale on the black market

The arrest of a man for selling $370,000 worth of toner cartridges is a reminder that there are all sorts of mundane materials and products that have a second life on the black market.

In New York, a man was recently charged with stealing toner cartridges and selling them for a hefty discount.

Though "the black market" generally describe everything from the selling of human organs to counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags, recently, we've been hearing about some surprisingly common items being sold illicitly.

The detergent Tide is another example. It turns out many of the items you buy on a regular basis may actually have made their way on to the shelf through the black market.

Sea cucumbers, cell phones and moon dust

Sea cucumbers are big on the black market. The endangered species is a delicacy in Asia.

Old cell phones are another big seller in underground circles.

Black market moon dust from Apollo 11 found its way to an auction house in Missouri.

The big one: Cigarettes

One of the most common items in the black market is cigarettes.

David Merriman is a professor at the University of Illinois. He did a really creative study (PDF) on cigarette smuggling in Chicago. He had his undergrads walk randomly selected neighborhoods and collect the discarded cigarette packs they found on the ground.

"On the cigarette pack is a tax stamp that indicates where it was purchased," Merriman says.


Maps from Merriman's study, courtesy of the University of Illinois. Click to enlarge.

The students found that 75 percent of the packs did not have Illinois stamps on them. Most had stamps from neighboring Indiana, which has a cigarette tax that's about $3 less than Illinois.

A separate study of black market cigarettes in New York state had similar results. "We've estimated that 60 percent of the total market is illicit," says Michael LaFaive, a director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Newer to the game: Baby formula

LaFaive also found examples of other goods that were being sold to shoppers who had no idea they were stolen.

"We have seen a very popular item, Similac, it's a formula for babies," LaFaive says.

It's now common practice for wholesalers and retailers to lock up their supply of expensive baby formula because it's so frequently stolen and sold on the black market.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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