WBTV Investigates: Dark net home delivery of hard core drugs

Inside the Dark Net
(Corey Schmidt | WBTV)
(Corey Schmidt | WBTV)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - He was nervous to talk about it and there was no way he would if his real name was used.

"The heroin comes from Afghanistan," he said. "The molly comes from Germany."

We'll call him 'Riley' and his insight into a world few have seen, or understand is sobering.

"The cocaine comes from Peru," said Riley.

He was a mid-level drug dealer in the Charlotte area. All those drugs were bought online. All of them were delivered, undetected straight to his home.

"The first time was a little buy just to make sure everything was legit," said Riley. "We'd heard stories of (drugs) being fake before."

Those first few deliveries weren't fake and the buys got bigger and more frequent.

"I mean with the quality you got to figure (the drugs were) coming straight off bricks," said Riley.

If you think this is rare you'd be mistaken.

"It's pretty well known within the addicted population," said drug counselor Charles Odell. "You can find these marketplaces that will basically sell you anything. I mean anything."

Odell has been working to help those with addiction problems at the Dilworth Center in Charlotte for 15 years. He'll tell you nothing really surprises him when it comes to addicts getting drugs, but when he started hearing about internet home delivery it felt different.

"You can purchase in the privacy of your own home with total anonymity in a way that cannot be tracked by anyone and have it delivered to your home," said Odell. "It is very, very scary scenario."

How is this happening? In order to understand, you need to start with basics of the internet. The part most people use for news, social media and shopping is often called the visible web. It is actually a tiny fraction of all that is online. The vast majority of internet information is on what is called the deep web.

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"The deep web really means the unstructured part of the web," said WBTV cyber security expert Theresa Payton.

The unstructured, or uncatalogued basically means you can't find it with a Google search. You have to know exactly where you are going.

"It would be the equivalent of leaving a major interstate highway to go on foot through a forest without a map or compass," said Payton.

The deep web was created for legitimate reason, like protecting the privacy of your bank account and the anonymity of those reporting human rights abuses. But as it is with so many things in life, good intentions drew in bad actors who created what is called the dark net.  It's is the criminal underbelly of internet commerce.

The most common way to access the dark net is through a browser called Tor. It sends traffic through thousands of relays making it hard to track locations. Essentially, digital footprints are dusted over and it is nearly impossible to find out who is running a website, or from where. Ditto for the customers who visit.

Payton say parents need to be aware because it is not hard to download the Tor browser. She said they need to talking to their children and checking all folders on home computers for Tor's existence.

"This is no joke, you should not be on Tor unless you are a political dissident in another country," said Payton.  "This is one of those things you want to talk to your kids about, these are not monitored places, this is not Ebay," said Payton.

It may not be the shopping sites you visit, but they look just like them and it is not hard to land on them. A few searches on the visable web, the browser download and you are on way. It took WBTV Investigates just a few minutes to get into dark net's marketplaces.  On those sites you can find every imaginable drug, guns and worse where sellers are rated by reliability, by quality of product.

What makes it all the more maddening for law enforcement is there isn't even a money trail to follow. Transactions aren't made with debit cards or even cash. They are made in digital currency like bitcoins which aren't issued by banks or governments. There is no middle man and you can remain anonymous.

"You keep your money in an escrow until you sign off and say it was good and everything was gravy," said Riley. "Then once everything's cool, they get their money, you get your stuff."

"It does make law enforcement's job incredibly challenging," said Payton.

The United Nations spelled out the threat in it's annual "World Drug Report" filed in 2014.

The report said "the online marketplace for illicit drugs is becoming larger and more brazen."  It said while there are no reliable statistics on how many people are buying drugs on the internet the "variety available and purchased on the 'dark net' appears to be diverse and growing."

The FBI did have a rare success in 2013. It shut down the popular dark net marketplace called "Silk Road." The bust gave us insight into the power of such websites. In just 2-and-a-half years in operation Silk Road had rung $1.2 billion in revenue. A new version quickly popped up as well as many others just like it.

"I call it the new organized crime. It's the new mafia," said retired FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker.

Swecker, who now consults businesses on cyber security threats, stops short of saying those on dark net can't be tracked at all, but he says it is extremely difficult and time consuming. He said operators use anonymizers and applications that they pass around.

"You have to peel back the layers of the onion (to find them)," said Swecker. "Frankly, most state and local law enforcement agencies and many federal agencies don't have the resources and the time to do that."

WBTV Investigates reached to out to the Charlotte Field Office of the FBI for comment. Requests for an interview were declined, but in an email, the office told us "regarding the dark web being used to order heroin and deliver heroin... it is not something we've seen happening in Charlotte."

Riley, who is now clean and sober and working tells a very different story.

"There isn't much (law enforcement) can do about it," said Riley.

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