Criminals are turning to underground drug websites – some that require dealers to pay for substances using almost untraceable cryptocurrencies – to import drugs into Jersey.
Websites such as the notorious Silk Road, which has been shut down twice by the FBI and Europol, are becoming increasingly popular with drug dealers who use virtual currencies such as Bitcoin to buy drugs which can then be delivered direct to their front door. And senior officers say they have seen an increase in legitimate-looking sites, which circumvent the law by selling potentially lethal drugs and so-called ‘legal highs’ as ‘research chemicals’, that will accept payments via a simple bank transfer.
In the past four weeks, three criminals in Jersey have been sentenced by the Royal Court for importing potentially lethal class A drugs into the Island after buying them on the internet. Investigators found that in all three cases the criminals had used Bitcoins, a virtual and almost untraceable currency, to buy the substances through the ‘dark web’ – a section of the internet which can only be accessed with special software. In two of the cases the drugs came from Silk Road 3.0, the latest version of the illegal site. Another criminal, who imported around £40,000 of a psychoactive substance ten times stronger than LSD, bought the drugs from a ‘dark web’ site known as Agora.
A JEP investigation, the details of which are published on pages 4 and 5 of today’s newspaper, found that blackmarket goods from drugs and high-calibre weapons to counterfeit money and passports were available to buy through the dark web. Today, Detective Chief Inspector Craig Jackson has said the police have seen an increase in websites that sell drugs but warned users and dealers that police and Customs intelligence was improving all the time and subsequently the risks were increasing for criminals.
"Whilst the purchase of drugs online provides certain advantages for criminals, it ultimately makes them responsible for the importation thus bringing additional risks. As detection methods improve and co-operation between postal services, Customs and police tightens, many drug users will be reluctant to take these risks and continue to purchase at a street level. The police high tech crime unit has the necessary skill set to investigate this type of criminality, provide supporting evidence relating to online purchases, prove the use of electronic currencies and seize digital currencies," the detective said.
Mark Cockerham, head of enforcement for Customs, said they had been involved in a number cases recently where drugs bought on the dark web had been imported to the Island. He said: ‘JCIS have recently encountered some attempted drug importations where Bitcoins have been used in the transaction.
Drug purchases have been made on the dark net – an encrypted part of the internet – using Bitcoins with the intention that the consignments are then sent on to the Island, most likely by post.’ Most websites selling drugs on the dark web require payment in Bitcoins. The currency, which is used widely for legitimate purposes, is not controlled by any banks and users can set up numerous accounts with fake names. Det Chief Insp Jackson added: ‘Digital currencies are the preferred currency by sellers and websites operating within the dark web with Bitcoin still being the most popular.
"With the increasing popularity of new psychoactive substances, we have also seen a rise in the number of legitimate-looking websites supplying illegal substances under the guise of research chemicals who are willing to accept payment in traditional forms, such as direct bank transfer."
Last week Jersey took the first step towards regulating digital currencies when the Chief Minister’s Department unveiled plans to introduce measures to ensure companies know who they are selling to in an effort to combat crimes such as money laundering and counter the financing of terrorism.
The 'dark web': An area of the internet populated by drug dealers, counterfeiters and hitmen
As the world’s technology advances, the methods criminals use for their felonies is ever-changing. In recent weeks the JEP has reported on a number of cases in the Royal Court in which dealers have bought drugs online using a sophisticated virtual currency known as the Bitcoin. Many of these websites selling the drugs are not accessible through regular search engines – they belong to a hidden section of the internet known as the dark web.
What exactly are the ‘deep web’ and the ‘dark web’? It might help to explain if you think of the internet like an iceberg. Websites such as facebook.com, bbc.co.uk and jerseyeveningpost.com are at the tip of that iceberg. They are clearly visible and can be easily accessed through search engines like Google. They are part of what is known as the surface web.
Any website that cannot be accessed using a search engine are in what is called the deep web. These sites, which include academic journals and government documents which are legitimate and legal but not recognised by search facilities, are the part of the iceberg that sits just below the surface. The dark web is a small portion of the deep web that has been intentionally hidden and is inaccessible through standard internet browsers such as Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer. These are right at the bottom of the iceberg. This is the portion of the internet most widely known for illicit activities, such as buying and selling drugs, and has to be accessed using software that hides a computer’s identity – software such as the Tor network.
Common estimates suggest that the deep web is 500 times larger than the surface web.The very process of entering the dark web is not illegal. However, most of its contents are illegal, therefore using such services would be a breach of the law. Detective Chief Inspector Craig Jackson said that there are obvious advantages for drug dealers in buying illicit substances online, but he warned that the police’s and Customs’ intelligence was improving all the time.
"Buying drugs online ultimately makes them responsible for the importation,’ the officer said. ‘As detection methods improve and co-operation between postal services, Customs and the police tightens, many drug users will be reluctant to take these risks and continue to purchase at street level."
What is the Tor Network?
Tor – The Onion Router – is a piece of free software that can be downloaded on the internet which enables users to access the dark web and surf the net privately and anonymously. When using the internet normally, a computer has one set IP address based on its location in the world, similar to a post code. When using Tor, it latches onto several other IP addresses around the world to hide a computer’s true location and identity.
According to figures from the Tor Metrics website, which collates data on the number of people using the web browser, the USA has the most daily users in the world (378,565). The UK is the fifth-highest on the list with 87,721. During a JEP investigation into the dark web, the computer’s IP address was bounced around the world to locations in France, Canada, the USA and the Czech Republic. By doing this, data sent to our computer, which made up the internet sites, arrived in layers, like an onion – hence the name. It would therefore have been hidden and would be difficult to trace back to us, and would have made it hard for authorities or anybody to discover the sites visited. Although it can be used for malicious and illegal purposes, Tor is used legitimately by bloggers in countries where freedom of speech is limited.
What Can You Buy On the Dark Web?
The dark web is a hive of organised criminal activity. According to figures from the Tor Metrics website released in 2013, of the 87,721 people in Britain that are thought to be using Tor every day, 5,000 are believed to be doing so for criminal reasons. With a wide range of services on offer, those illegal purposes are many, varied and complex.
During a 20-minute browsing session on the dark web using the Tor network, the JEP uncovered a number of criminal services at the click of a button. Most if not all of the services require payment using the non-centralised cryptocurrency Bitcoin.
What is On Offer?
- US counterfeit currency. One website offered $1,250 (£808) worth of fake US bills in denominations of $50 (£33) for $600 (£388). It even offered ‘handy tips’ on how not to get caught using the fake currency and a quality guarantee on the notes that could be delivered worldwide.
- UK passports and US citizenship. Fraud is big business on the dark web, accounting for nine per cent of all web pages on the hidden part of the internet. One site was selling US citizenship documents for $3,500 (£2,262) and another website was offering UK passports for hundreds of pounds.
- Super-strength conventional drugs. Sites were offering high-value cannabis skunk, cocaine, heroin, LSD and ecstasy in the form of ‘pure MDMA crystals’ -– which could be delivered to customers’ doors. The JEP found a site called The People’s Drug Store. However, the most infamous drug site is Silk Road, which is now in its third generation – Silk Road 3.0. The original site was shut down by the FBI in October 2013 and Silk Road 2.0 was closed by the FBI and Europol on 6 November last year.
- NPS. Although no new psychoactive substances so-called legal highs were found during the JEPs brief search of the dark web, a recent case that was heard in the Royal Court involved the importation of a psychoactive drug ten-times stronger than LSD that was bought from a site in the dark web.
- Hitmen. Hired assassins seemingly advertising their services for sale on the dark web are not uncommon. However, they are all believed to be fake.
- Cloned debit and credit cards. Underground companies were offering to clone bank cards from between $1,000 and $5,000 (£646 to £3,231) with the ability to access the victims’ money through cashpoints.
What exactly is a Bitcoin?
The Bitcoin is a form of online currency which was created in 2009. It is decentralised, meaning it is not controlled by any banks, and is entirely virtual. If hard currency is like a CD, then a Bitcoin is like an MP3. Like cash, Bitcoins are very difficult to trace, which makes them popular with criminals like drug dealers. Unlike cash, however, Bitcoins can easily be transferred anywhere in the world. The coins are held in an virtual Bitcoin ‘wallet’, which can be accessed via a computer or an app on a smartphone.
New Bitcoins are created through a process called mining, whereby users solve complex computing codes to release more Bitcoins. However, the number of Bitcoins that can be in circulation at any one time is restricted to 21 million. For a number of years, Bitcoins have not been usable in the real world; however, that is changing. Having previously been consigned simply to internet purchases, a number of businesses have begun to accept Bitcoins as a valid payment option – including some in Jersey. As of today, one Bitcoin is worth £171.
The 29-year-old was sentenced to six years and one month by the Royal Court for importing the drug and a substance similar to cannabis.He was also found with more than £16,000 in cash and said he had been selling the drugs to support his family.
Nadim Hassan Teixeira and Brandon Lee Volante-Nobrega, both 18, were spared jail after ordering the class A drugs from Silk Road on the dark web. The pair, who were sentenced on 30 September, were caught after a padded envelope addressed to Teixeira’s home containing 27 ecstasy tablets was intercepted by Customs officers in March. His accomplice, Volante-Nobrega, was arrested after mobile phone records showed the pair conspiring to import 50 ecstasy tablets from Silk Road before the importation of the 27 tablets.
Teixeira pleaded guilty to two counts of importing class A drugs and separate offences of larceny and driving without due care and attention. Volante-Nobrega pleaded guilty to one count of importation. The pair were sentenced to 312 hours of community service and a 12-month probation order for their roles in the conspiracy.
Jersey Evening Post/Nov. 2, 2015
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