News 5 Investigates

Oct 30, 2013 8:47 PM by Eric Ross

News 5 Investigates: FBI shuts down illegal drug web site

We are learning more about how a man was able to run one of the world's largest online drug trafficking web sites that eluded police, the FBI and DEA agents across the country for more than two years.

The alleged ring leader, Ross Ulbricht, 29, is charged with narcotics trafficking, computer hacking and money laundering.

News 5 first told you about this online drug empire plaguing the nation back in April. Most people probably haven't heard of "Silk Road," but it's a site drug users and dealers are said to be familiar with.

A federal criminal complaint News 5 just obtained accuses Ulbricht of being the mastermind behind the site which operates similar to eBay. Users were able to purchase anything from cocaine and heroin, the synthetic marijuana and prescription medications.

"Whether a drug transaction takes place in person, over the phone, or over the Internet, it's a violation of federal law," DEA Agent Matt Barden told News 5 back in April.

Following our initial broadcast, the site was able to run uninterrupted for six months using a secret web browser called Tor.

"Tor is a service that is designed to protect the anonymity of people who want to use the Internet," Jonathan Poritz, an associate professor at CSU Pueblo said.

Poritz explained that Tor was once used by government agencies to protect private information before the general public found out about it.

Using this web browser, communication between buyers and sellers on "Silk Road" is encrypted multiple times. By the time the transaction is complete, there's virtually no way to know where either party is located. To cover the money trail, buyers paid for their narcotics with bitcoins, an electronic currency designed to be as anonymous as cash.

Ulbricht was traced to a computer being used inside a San Francisco library after he allegedly posted a comment in a forum using his real name and email address.

"For someone who doesn't make a simple mistake like the "Silk Road" operator did, the FBI probably can't track you through TOR," Poritz said.

Tor's "anonymity" poses a threat for authorities who fear a replica could easily be created.

The U.S. Justice Department said more than $1 billion in illegal sales took place with Ulbricht reportedly making roughly $80 million in commissions.

Ulbricht is being represented by Brandon LeBlanc, a federal public defender. He adamantly denies the charges his client faces. In a separate case out of Maryland, Ulbricht is charged with arranging to pay an undercover agent to kill a witness who threatened to reveal his identity prior to his arrest.

If convicted, he could spent the rest of his life behind bars.



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