Scams and Undercover Cops Are Denting the Dark Web Gun Trade
"I just send a bag of sugar," admits one scam artist.
Image: Stepan Kapl/Shutterstock
With just a couple of clicks and a fistful of bitcoins, it's trivial to buy an AK-47 or a pistol on the dark web. At least, that's the idea presented when casually scrolling through the digital shelves of online markets.
But the reality is that sourcing a weapon from the dark web can actually be fairly difficult—so much so that several markets have stopped stocking weapons altogether.
One impetus for that is the heavy presence of scammers, who create fake accounts to dupe gullible gun hunters out of their money.
"I'm just kinda addicted to the scamming part. It's too easy," one scammer told Motherboard in an email chat. The scammer used to operate under the handle "Bartsmit" on AlphaBay, a popular market that sells stolen data, weapons, and drugs, among other goods. Today the scammer is still ripping people off, but under a different identity.
"I just send a bag of sugar"
Bartsmit's scam is a bare-bones affair that mostly relies on building up an aura of legitimacy to entice potential buyers. Bartsmit uploads images of guns from real sellers who he has asked to include his username, or at least an initial of it, in the picture. From here, the scammer will simply pretend that he is a professional seller: giving details about the product, explaining how the packaging will keep the gun parts hidden through customs, and so on. "All fantasy stories I tell them," Bartsmit said.
The scammer encourages customers to "finalize early"—that is, send the full fee for the weapon before they receive it—and provides them with a postal tracking code.
"Then I just send a bag of sugar," Bartsmit said. Bartsmit claims to have made 60 to 70 different scam accounts over the past two years on various markets, creating a fresh moniker every one to two weeks. In all, Bartsmit has apparently raked in over 100,000 euros from his venture.
This type of scam is so widespread that Agora, which was at one point the largest market on the dark web, stopped selling guns altogether. In a statement published by the site administrators in July of this year, Agora referenced "scamming by dishonest vendors" as one of the reasons for removing lethal weapons from its shelves.
Another, possibly more urgent reason Agora stopped offering guns was the high number of undercover agents on the marketplaces who have been fairly successful in arresting both buyers and sellers of weapons.
"Criminals are realising that they can in fact be tracked and identified by law enforcement"
In April this year, Justin Moreira from the US was charged with buying a pistol and silencer on the dark web. In June, Michael Focia, also a US resident, was convicted of selling weapons on Agora. Shortly after, over a dozen others were arrested for similar offenses, and more recently the FBI identified a US-based gun seller who the US Department of Justice said was assisting with other investigations into gun buyers in the UK, Poland and Germany. Today, UK resident Darren Hillyer, who pleaded guilty to purchasing a pistol from the dark web, will be sentenced in Bristol Crown Court.
"There have been numerous successful prosecutions of people who have bought or attempted to buy firearms using dark web forums," a spokesperson from the UK's National Crime Agency told Motherboard in an email. "Not only are buyers highly susceptible to being ripped off or scammed, through the NCA sharing intelligence and working closely nationally and internationally with partners, criminals are realising that they can in fact be tracked and identified by law enforcement."
Evidently, these arrests have caught the attention of dark web market administrators. Nucleus, another marketplace, also recently announced it was not going to allow weapon sales.
"It is not very secure for us to sell weapons here anymore," the announcement on the site read last week. The administrators also noted that the move was made "in the light of recent events in France," though there is no evidence that the Paris terror attacks involved any resources obtained from the dark web.
"If a human wants something really bad they will get it in some way"
Despite the arrests and scams, however, it is certainly not impossible to successful buy a gun on the dark web.
Since Silk Road launched way back in 2011, dozens of illegal marketplaces have come and gone. Out of 88 different markets, 36 have had the option to sell guns, according to figures maintained by the independent researcher Gwern Branwen. (These figures were last updated in June 2015; other markets have launched and closed since then).
At the moment, at least one seller on AlphaBay appears to be making successful sales of pistols, with positive feedback from customers steadily rolling in. Bartsmit said the account looked like a legitimate seller.
"If you buy a gun from the streets or buy a gun from the darknet there is no difference," Bartsmit said. "If a human wants something really bad they will get it in some way."