Inside the war on Dark Web drug lords as dealers boast of selling pills from their sofas to avoid bloody gang battles
FAR away from Britain's bloody street gang wars, an army of faceless drug dealers are selling deadly pills for as little as £2 from the comfort of their own sofas.
Lured in by the promise of stress-free cash, these ruthless dealers are raking in a fortune pushing their products on the internet's shadowy underbelly, the Dark Web.
“Selling drugs online is a safer way — there’s no turf war, no wannabe hardmen threatening to chop your head off with machetes, no dramas," one UK seller tells Sun Online.
“If I get caught, it’ll be my own fault. But I won’t, not when there are enough dumb dealers making mistakes."
The cocky vendor – who spoke to us over Telegram, an encrypted app where messages self-destruct – lists marijuana, edibles, hash and resin on various Dark Web marketplaces.
“I can sell from home, to people I’d never have met if I sold on the street and as long as people want to buy and take drugs, there will be others ready to sell it," he boasts.
“Whether that’s at a licensed pharmacy, on a street corner or on the internet, there will always be a steady supply to meet the demand."
Deadly £82m-a-year trade
The web's shady underworld is a hotbed for illicit trading – with hired assassins, live torture streams and customers' own medical data listed alongside cut-price Class A drugs.
In the UK alone, the Dark Web drugs industry has swelled to an estimated £82million-a-year trade, as its ever-growing tech-savvy customer base turns to Amazon-style deliveries.
There’s no turf war, no wannabe hardmen threatening to chop your head off with machetes
And drug listings have soared during the Covid pandemic – with a report by cyber intelligence firm Sixgill finding the Dark Web drugs supply has surged by nearly 500 per cent in a matter of months.
Listings for cocaine have even spiked by a shocking 1,000 per cent – up from 140 on December 23, 2019 to 1,541 on April 27 this year, according to the data, published in late May.
Killed by Dark Web MDMA overdoses
But such listings come at a huge cost.
One dad, Ray Lakeman, went through the heartbreak of losing both his young sons on the same day after they took lethal doses of MDMA, bought on the Dark Web.
Brothers Jacques and Torin, aged just 20 and 19, died side-by-side in their Bolton hotel room in November 2014, shortly after watching a Manchester United football game.
"It turned out that Torin – who we had no idea had any interest in drugs – had bought some ecstasy on the Dark Web," grieving father Ray, 70, told us this summer.
"They both took it the Saturday night after the football match, and were found a couple of days later. It was a big shock."
Kids can buy pills for next to nothing. You can get 50 for £100 on the Dark Web – that’s £2 each – and they’re selling them for £10 on the streets
He added: "Kids can buy pills for next to nothing. You can get 50 for £100 on the Dark Web – that’s £2 each – and they’re selling them for £10 on the streets.
"But these kids don’t know what it is they’re taking."
Often, "pocket money"-priced Dark Web drugs are cut with other deadly substances. They can also look like colourful sweets, making them more attractive and innocent-looking to children.
Is the 'golden age' already over?
So, what is law enforcement doing to crack down on Dark Web vendors?
In September, Europol made the bold claim that the “golden age” of the Dark Web is over – with law enforcement agencies now capable of countering marketplaces' encryption and anonymity.
It said 179 suspects had been arrested across the world in what is believed to be the biggest Dark Web bust in history.
What is the Dark Web?
The internet is actually made up of three different layers: the surface web, the deep web and the dark web.
The top layer, the surface web, are web pages that show up using search engines such as Google – like The Sun website that you're looking at right now.
The deep web are web pages which search engines can't access and are therefore hidden, accessed via passwords and authorisation.
Any time you log into an account you're accessing deep web content that won't show up on a search engine.
For example, work intranets, password-protected areas of online banking and draft blog posts are all stored on the deep web.
This means that if someone was to Google your name, your banking information or Amazon wishlist won't show up in the results.
The dark web is a network of untraceable online activity and websites on the internet.
They cannot be found using search engines and to access them you need to use specific software, configurations or have authorisation. They are used by lots of different people to keep their web activity hidden.
Since May 2019, officers across six countries have slowly been arresting once-anonymous computer crooks, recovering £5million in cash, 64 firearms and half a tonne of drugs in the process.
And Europol's Edvardas Šileris, who is head of the European Cybercrime Centre, seized the chance to send a strongly-worded message to Dark Web users.
The hidden internet is no longer hidden, and your anonymous activity is not anonymous
“The golden age of the Dark Web marketplace is over,” he claimed.
“The hidden internet is no longer hidden, and your anonymous activity is not anonymous.”
For some, the news was proof that the authorities are moving in the right direction – with the takedown of marketplaces cutting off sellers' illicit earnings and seeing some of them caged.
Yet others have mocked the suggestion that police are getting a grip on criminal activity.
One vendor, who supplies the powerful psychedelic drug DMT, admitted to us that he regularly loses hundreds of pounds from a marketplace being shut down.
However, his most recent loss was with Dark Web drug haven Empire Market – rumoured to have closed when its admins ran an “exit scam” and made off with customers' money.
I lost close to £2,000 after the admins ran off, but that’s part of the factored in costs. I’d rather lose money than a limb in a gang fight
“I’ve had almost 10,000 sales with about a third of them through Empire," said the seller, who charges up to £40 per gram.
“I lost close to £2,000 after the admins ran off, but that’s part of the factored in costs. I’d rather lose money than a limb in a gang fight.”
The seller allegedly started selling DMT – which researchers say gives the same feeling as being close to death – after buying it for his wife’s severe muscular back pain.
“It changed her whole life, I want to share it with others,” he claimed.
“You just have to follow security to a tee.”
Unmasking the 'faceless'
Of course, infiltrating the encrypted corner of the internet is no easy task for the hard-working officers determined to bring down cyber criminals.
Internet browsers like Tor are specifically designed to mask the identities of Dark Web users, who believe they're “hidden and anonymous” – something Europol is now dismissing.
I make anywhere between £1,000 and £2,000-a-week and, again, that’s small change compared to some
Most users also take other steps to avoid getting caught.
For the marijuana and edibles seller, these include only posting packages in the UK, using public Wifi and not going "overboard" with his illicit profits.
"I make anywhere between £1,000 and £2,000-a-week and, again, that’s small change compared to some," he told us.
“I first started buying small amounts of drugs myself on [Dark Web marketplace] AlphaBay for personal use, then I shared with a few friends and it went on from there."
‘The Dark Web is not a fairy tale’
EUROPOL warns against buying illegal goods on the Dark Web.
The dangers include:
- Putting your life in danger: dangerous illegal drugs such as fentanyl or counterfeit substances could kill you
- Become a victim of cyber scammers who are only after your money
- Exposing your device to damaging malware
In a statement last month, the agency added: "Law enforcement can also trace back illicit transactions to both the buyer and seller.
"An individual who purchased illicit goods from hidden sites is at risk of prosecution in a number of countries.
"The Dark Web is not a fairy tale – vendors and buyers are no longer hidden in the shadows."
Law enforcement operations have successfully shut down major marketplaces such as Silk Road, Alphabay and Wall Street Market, and arrested those behind them.
Often, officers employ good old-fashioned police work to identify scraps of information that may link to a user’s real-world identity.
Silk Road’s creator Ross Ulbricht was infamously caught when FBI officers discovered the site had strong links to his personal Gmail account.
And less than 24 hours before Europol announced its Dark Web operation, wittily named DisrupTor, cyber crook Nathan Wyatt was also sent down.
Wyatt, a hacker from Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, led notorious extortion team The Dark Overlord, which flogged stolen healthcare data, hacked Netflix and demanded £300,000 ransom payments.
He was also once accused of targeting Pippa Middleton – who The Sun revealed had 3,000 private photos stolen from her iCloud account and offered for sale for £50,000 within 48 hours.
In 2016, Wyatt was cleared of hacking Pippa’s account but jailed for blackmailing a law firm.
He was then shipped to the US to face further charges, where last month he was caged for five years and ordered to pay more than £1million in restitution for identity theft and computer fraud.
'Police can only focus on so much'
For Dark Web sellers like the marijuana vendor, “bogus” crooks like Wyatt who "hack to extort" and "blackmail the innocent" are a welcome distraction for police, allowing others to fly under the radar.
“There’s only so much policing units can focus on so the more muppets like him taking up their time the better," the seller told us.
And while officers are clearly capable of making arrests and shutting down illegal markets, experts say the number of criminals waiting in the wings to replace them remains unchanged.
On Dread, a Dark Web forum used by thousands every day, one of the most common topics of discussion is the marketplaces that are still active following Europol’s regular takedowns.
There will always be a market for illegal contraband and criminals, the very good ones, will go on operating regardless
Sun Online has been able access some of the most popular websites (which we are choosing not to name).
Jake Moore, a former Dorset Police cyber crime investigator, warns that while Europol's latest success "took many years of work", some Dark Web marketplaces will continue to thrive.
“When they have a news story like this they are keen to promote it — but it’s a fine line between the classic cat and mouse," he tells us.
“There will always be a market for illegal contraband and criminals, the very good ones, will go on operating regardless.”
Only 'low-hanging fruit' caught
Last year, researchers from cybersecurity company Recorded Future put the number of active marketplaces as high as 100, with many vying to fill the void left behind when a competitor closes.
And Moore, who left the force to join one of Europe’s largest internet security firms, ESET, believes criminals’ use of the Dark Web is only set to increase.
“The police are getting better at investigating it and using better techniques,” he adds.
“However, Europol is likely only going to catch the low hanging fruit who are making mistakes.”
'Low hanging fruit' refers to crooks at the bottom of the criminal tree, enabling those at the very top to continue untouched.
“When I started investigating computer crime around 2008, I could plug in nearly everyone’s computer that was brought in, copy the hard drive and find pretty much everything they’d done," Moore adds.
“In less than ten years, the evidence I could gather became less and less.
“Criminals are getting better and better at avoiding capture and have forums where they are able to help each other. You’re likely not to get the big league players.”
UK market now worth £225k a day
The National Crime Agency (NCA), which is at the centre of the global fight against Dark Web traders, is keen to echo Europol’s message, especially to anyone looking for an easy payday.
“Criminals may turn to the Dark Web for a level of perceived anonymity and to protect themselves from rival dealers or gangs,” an NCA spokesman tells Sun Online.
“But they shouldn’t assume that they can hide from law enforcement.
“We have a number of techniques at our disposal and our commitment to using them is unwavering."
Identifying the turnover of Dark Web marketplaces in the UK, the NCA revealed a “conservative estimate” of between £175,000 and £225,000 every day.
“The Dark Web continues to be a significant threat, with illicit commodities dominating the marketplace,” the spokesman added.
Sellers' sick 'Bible'
It doesn't help that Dark Web users are fighting to protect each other.
They have even compiled their own 'Bible' – essentially, a beginner’s guide to help newcomers “commit felonies and reduce the risk of getting caught”.
The 133-page tome, which is continuously updated by criminals, covers how to post illegal goods, which vendors to order from, and how to avoid detection, among other sick tips.
And it is this idea-sharing community that poses another worrying obstacle for investigators as they struggle to play Whac-A-Mole with marketplaces that constantly pop up and disappear.
“Clearly there is a trend here,” Jamie Hart, cyber threat intelligence analyst at Digital Shadows, tells us.
“A Dark Web marketplace is created, that marketplace becomes popular, that marketplace is taken down, rinse and repeat.
“While DisrupTor was a successful operation and a landmark case for law enforcement activity from a Dark Web marketplace perspective, the belief that the ‘golden era’ of market activity is over is a bit far-fetched.”
Jamie, and other experts, fear that Dark Web criminals may even use Europol's latest action as "a learning curve" for future illicit dealings, leaving the "good guys" still trailing in their wake.
And the marijuana seller agrees: “Just because a few sites have been taken down and few admins rounded up, it doesn’t mean the ‘golden age’ is over.
“It’s like a babushka doll — there will always be others ready and waiting to replace it.”
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