FIVE years ago this week, the FBI arrested Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind of a massive, illegal online drug market called “Silk Road”.
The FBI said the site had nearly a million users and that more than a billion dollars in drugs were sold using bitcoin. It had about 13,000 active drug listings, Fox News reports.
Ulbricht was later sentenced to double-life in prison without parole — but despite the stiff sentence, new sites have risen to take Silk Road’s place, and are more significant than ever before.
The largest five dark web markets now have more than 120,000 illegal drug listings, visits to the sites reveal. The listings include just about every drug, including opioids, weed and meth.
The markets exist on the “dark web,” or “darknet,” where it is tough for authorities to determine anyone’s identity or location. The invention of bitcoin-enabled such sites because the currency can be hard to trace to users’ identities.
That helped Ulbricht’s’s Silk Road site — the first major online drug market — avoid being shut down for a-year-and-a-half. The FBI was only able to get him after they noticed that Ulbricht had accidentally used his real name on an internet forum.
Despite Government’s War On Dark Web, the Online Drug Market Is Well and Alive
The rise in online drug market activity comes even despite a continued law enforcement effort that has shuttered several big sites in the last couple of years. Earlier this year, the FBI also found, arrested and charged 35 suspected sellers of drugs on such sites.
In January 2018, the US Department of Justice created a special team to deal with the problem, called the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement (J-CODE) team.
Attorney-General Jeff Sessions said: “Criminals think that they are safe on the darknet, but they are in for a rude awakening … We have already infiltrated their networks, and we are determined to bring them to justice.”
But so far, drug listings on the dark web remain more plentiful than ever.
The most massive dark web operation, Dream Market (http://4buzlb3uhrjby2sb.onion/?ai=552713), which is not accessible from standard web browsers, has more than 72,000 drug listings by itself.
People buy and sell just about every kind of drug on the site, along with stolen credit card numbers and hacking services. The one drug not for sale is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid so dangerous that even that outlaw market bans it. More than half of opioid deaths in America last year were caused by fentanyl.
Silk Road 3.1 With 30,000 Listings
The next largest dark web drug site is Silk Road 3.1 (http://silkroad7rn2puhj.onion/), with more than 30,000 listings. Fentanyl and all drugs appear for sale on that site.
The markets continue to grow because they’re still safer for users than back-alley deals, said Jonathan Birk, CEO of Juliet Bravo Solutions, who trains police on investigating the dark web.
“It’s straightforward to create an account, list a drug, put it in the mail and ship it to the customer … there is lower risk than selling it on the street,” he told Fox News. “That is why there are more listings today.”
Simple, single product sites such as Flexx Cocaine (http://chemradvzlfaqeqc.onion/) specialise in one or two products.
Many of these kinds of dark web drug sites are ran by elusive drug cartels operating out of Italy, Spain, France, Montenegro, Bosnia, and other European countries. The operators are known to have multiple storage locations throughout the globe so they can easily ship to anywhere.
Mr Birk believes ongoing efforts by police are critical to keeping the problem under control.
“Enforcement has had effects on the markets already,” he said. “Many markets stopped selling fentanyl and firearms because of the successful enforcement against those items. New digital currencies, such as Monero, have been created because of successful enforcement tracing bitcoin.”
Monero, a competing currency to bitcoin which is even harder to trace, has gained acceptance on dark websites. The top four darknet sites all accept Monero now, in addition to bitcoin.
But some experts say the task for law enforcement is virtually impossible.
Perry Metzger of Metzger, Dowdeswell & Co, an internet security consultancy, said police had been mostly unsuccessful in stemming the flow of drugs even offline and that there’s little reason to think they’ll be more successful on the web.
“People have an enormous desire to purchase illegal substances … regardless of whatever law enforcement is put in place,” he said.
Mr Metzger said that it would be best if laws against drugs were scrapped.
“Having drugs illegal creates far more harm than good. Addicts can’t get proper help, and it adds enormous incentives for people to create violent criminal networks. It seems to have been a failure every time it’s been tried.”
Mr Metzger says that even if authorities could get rid of all bitcoin-like currencies — a nearly impossible task — criminal networks would still find other ways to move money online because so much profit is at stake.
He noted that China spends billions on web censorship, “but people who want info are still able to get it”.
“If the Chinese can’t prevent that, what hope do authorities have of preventing this?” he said.
Mr Birk, however, is more optimistic.
“Today many local agencies are now involved in investigating dark web crimes. For example, the Portland PD was investigating a deadly drug overdose in Portland that led them to Theodore Khleborod … they were able to track him to South Carolina and arrest him,” he said. “Through his (dark web) listings they were able to potentially tie him to other overdose deaths.”
Mr Khleborod committed suicide in jail last year.
Mr Birk said police should keep up their efforts against the markets.
“In my opinion, it is not a lost cause, despite the increase in listings,” he told Fox News. “Enforcement has made these markets risky to operate and increased the risk for sellers and buyers.”