Most Dark Web Drug Operators Continue to Evade Authorities

By McCarton Ackerman 06/03/15

Despite Ross Ulbricht's life sentence, several online drug dealers remain at large.

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Ross Ulbricht has begun serving a life sentence for operating Dark Web drug market Silk Road, but the majority of people running similar online markets will likely never face arrest or trial.

Ulbricht, 31, was also denied a chance at parole in his sentence handed down last Friday. It was possible he would only receive a 20-year sentence, but Judge Katherine Forrest suggested the harsh punishment was partially due to the difficulty in finding more of these online masterminds.

“For those considering stepping into your shoes, they need to understand without equivocation that there will be severe consequences,” she said at sentencing.

The prosecution’s letter in Ulbricht’s case also acknowledged that these markets “continue to pose investigative challenges for law enforcement.” Using online currency including Tor and bitcoins has helped buyers, selling and administrators continue to operate anonymously.

Independent researcher Gwern Branwen noted that more than 70 Dark Web drug markets were created after Ulbricht founded Silk Road, but only five of the administrators for these sites have been arrested.

Among the most notorious Dark Web operators still on the loose is Variety Jones, who served as Ulbricht’s security consultant, adviser and mentor for Silk Road. Jones sold cannabis seeds on the site, but also engaged in far more extreme criminal behavior. An online chat allegedly shows Jones suggesting to Ulbricht that they kill a Silk Road employee who stole bitcoins from the site.

The creators of other Dark Web markets are also on the run. The founders of Atlantis, a Silk Road-knockoff with an advertising budget, shutdown the site and vanished shortly before authorities shutdown Silk Road in the summer of 2013. They reportedly warned Ulbricht of a security flaw in Tor before closing down their operations.

Verto and Kimble, the co-founders of Dark Web drug market Evolution, have also vanished since shutting down the site last March and running off with millions of dollars in bitcoins from their users. At its peak, Evolution had more than double the product listings that Silk Road did at its peak. They also had additional offerings including stolen financial information.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.