Feature Article

Darknet denizens slither past the law

The darknet is the latest example of technology that’s become a breeding ground for criminal activity. Combating virtual crime in this subset of the deep web is exceedingly difficult because of its anonymity. However, here are some ways law enforcement and fraud examiners are fighting these elusive miscreants.

The advertisement read like a script from a TV movie: “ ‘Breaking Bad’ untraceable ricin for sale.” Ricin is a biologic toxin that’s fatal when ingested. Except the offer wasn’t part of a crime drama — it was a real sales listing on a popular darknet marketplace. (See “ LaBelle man at heart of int’l poison plot sentenced,” News-Press, Feb. 18, 2015.)

An undercover law enforcement officer, pretending to be a buyer, responded to the ad and claimed he needed the poison to kill an unsuspecting victim. The officer found positive feedback online from other customers about the seller, which indicated that he or she had successfully completed other transactions. The officer believed these reviews showed the posting was probably real.

The officer was surprised to quickly receive a nonchalant and confident reply from the seller, but then he probably thought he was protected by his anonymity. The online exchanges between the two continued for several weeks. Each message from the seller provided more specifics for finalizing the deal. They eventually agreed that the seller would provide a quantity of abrin — a plant toxin similar to ricin — for a payment of several thousand dollars’ worth of bitcoin. (See Facts About Abrin, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Even though buyers on the darknet pay online, the exchange of merchandise usually requires a physical transfer from person to person, which ends anonymity, according to “ Inside the Dark Web,” by Max Eddy, PC Magazine, Feb. 4, 2015.

Depending on the terms of the transaction, sellers often send merchandise via commercial shippers. Sometimes, buyers and sellers meet face to face. This transaction was no different. To complete the toxin sale, the vendor needed to deliver it to the customer.


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