Website enables easy illegal drug sales

Jul 6, 2012

Digital black market activity hard to trace

Updated: Friday, 06 Jul 2012, 7:32 AM CDT
Published : Thursday, 05 Jul 2012, 8:32 PM CDT

Leslie Rhode

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Log on to the Silk Road Anonymous Marketplace, and you may think you are looking at an eBay-type website. However, you will not find children’s clothing or used electronics to buy.

Shoppers on Silk Road may buy illegal drugs including marijuana, ecstasy and heroin. Buyers simply search for a drug, look through the options including photos, add it to their online cart and wait for it to arrive in the mail.

The sellers are listed as living all over the world, and are even evaluated and rated by past shoppers. You can even read comments about the sellers. It sure sounds like eBay, but Silk Road has federal investigators watching it very closely.

A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, D.C. told KXAN News they are “very aware of Silk Road” calling it a “big problem” and confirming to KXAN they are  investigating the website.

“It’s scary,” said recovering drug addict Cary Acevedo. “It’s very scary.”

Acevedo is a recovering drug addict in Austin who sees Silk Road as a huge setback in the drug war and an even bigger setback for addicts like herself.

“I was real good at getting my family to give me money and doing whatever it took,” said Acevedo. “There was a lot of lying and stealing, to tell you the truth, to get to my drug.

Acevedo talked about leaving her family in the middle of the night and risking her safety just to get her hands on drugs. She would do whatever it took to feed her addiction.

“My God — to have something delivered to me and not have to do anything at all but push a button,” said Acevedo.  “Boy, that sounds really good to an addict.”

How Silk Road works

Silk Road runs on an anonymous network called TOR or The Onion Router. Dr. Qijun Gu at Texas State University has been researching the technology for years. He said he believes the United States government has used it, but was surprised to learn it may be used to sell illegal items.

“TOR basically is technology to hide people’s identity in the network when they use the network to send information,” said Gu.

TOR works by using encrypted messages. The beginning message from the buyer or seller is encrypted or encoded several times. Then the message is sent randomly through Silk Road members’ computers all over the world, and at each stop, part of the message is revealed. Think of it as peeling off the layers of an onion. By the time the entire message reaches its destination, the person who receives it has no idea where it came from.

The hidden nature of TOR makes Silk Road a perfect outlet for a drug addict to hide his or her disease, according to drug counselors.

“It’s almost like Amazon,” said Austin Recovery clinician Ilana Zivkovich. “You’ve got one-click shopping. Now drug addicts are experiencing some of the same things which will only intensify their disease[s] and the negative consequences to them, their families and the community.”

Zivkovich said the internet is becoming more of a problem in the drug war and treatment of drug addiction, because it is an easy trigger of a drug habit.

“My first reaction when I heard of Silk Road was shock and disgust,” said Zivkovich.  “I think the fact that this is happening online at the fingertips of our children is a terrible thing.”

If your child, husband or friend has any dramatic change in their peer group, in the way they are dressing themselves or in their mood, Zivkovich said those may be warning signs that they are experimenting with drugs or already are addicted.  If they start isolating themselves in any way, possibly on their computer, she said you should ask questions.

Silk Road adds firearms

Just in the past few months, Silk Road added firearms to its black market digital store. Some of them are illegal in the United States. Buyers may find them spun off on a new anonymous website called “The Armory.”  It also runs on the TOR anonymous network. Now the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is on alert.

The ATF sent KXAN News a statement saying the “ATF is aware of ‘Silk Road Marketplace,’ an encrypted members-only website, as well as other online sites that may be involved in the illegal sale of firearms. ATF is always concerned when it learns about these types of websites. One of ATF’s primary missions is to enforce firearms laws and to protect the public from violent criminals.”

Hard to trace     

Getting on either Silk Road or The Armory takes some work. It not as simple as just searching for it through Google.

Other than the complicated anonymous network, another reason investigators may have a harder time tracking down those involved in these sites is the currency used for purchases. The websites do not take a check or credit card but only Bitcoins , perfectly legal digital money that Silk Road claims is not traceable.   The trading rate for Bitcoins fluctuates constantly.

DEA has been investigating Silk Road for more than a year. New York Sen. Charles Schumer publicly pushed the DEA to shut down Silk Road in June 2011.

Most local law enforcement entities that KXAN News asked about Silk Road and The Armory had not heard of the websites.

The illegal items are sent through the mail. The United States Postal Service, United Parcel Service and FedEx said they cannot discuss their security measures.

There are other legal uses for the TOR network: Some journalists use it to keep their sources private; businesses use it to keep information secure and private.