Crisis on the Silk Road: If you can't trust Britain's biggest online drug dealer, who can you trust?
By Willard Foxton Last updated: January 24th, 2013
Over the weekend, Britain's biggest seller of marijuana on the illegal but very successful online drug-dealing website Silk Road (SR, to those in the know) seems to have cut and run, disappearing from SR with a huge amount of his customer's money. Alarm bells were raised when the seller, known for his reliability, began asking for people to buy his product "FE" – Finalising Early.
This process – which bypasses SR's protection mechanisms – releases the buyer's funds from escrow into the seller's hands before they ship anything. Hardened users of the SR website see this as a huge warning sign, but this seller had one of the best track records on the site. The seller seems to have absconded with several weeks' worth of money; certainly, the administrators of the site have suspended his account.
As one user said: "This has played out like a typical cut-and-run scam. SR would not suspend an account without serious reason for concern, so its suggests that something dodgy was going on. I could speculate as to what happened but the simplest explanation is usually right: scam."
Of course, online scammers are nothing new in the world of online drug buying. Last year, a massive scam by the site's biggest heroin dealer left the owners of the site with a six-figure bill in terms of replacing angry buyer's cash – but with their reported profit at $100,000 a month, I'm sure it was painful, but not fatal to them. Still, they did refund the money – SR has developed its reputation by being the most above-board black market in the world, allowing access to stats, allowing users to see, for example, what proportion of buyers' orders that have been refunded. This works both ways: many sellers refuse to do business with anyone with more than zero refunds or with no buying history.
Getting to SR and indeed the rest of the "darknet", as it's known, requires a certain technical nous. However, as Jack Rivlin reported this week in the Telegraph, there are plenty of other sites the less technical can use – household names like Craigslist, eBay and Gumtree. Online drug dealing is becoming bigger and bigger – and the customers are becoming more affluent. One dealer I spoke to when I was investigating this subject in July last year said simply: “They are no trouble. No begging. No stealing. No promises. If the money not in the PayPal account, you don’t send the goods.”
UK law enforcement has no real answer to this kind of drug dealing, carried out across national borders, with no real names to track the dealers down with, no middlemen or small-time clockers to lean on. Local cops think in terms of local dealers; we're sleepwalking into a situation where many forces don't even know it is going on. Organisations like SOCA (soon to be folded into the National Crime Agency) are aware of the capability gap they have, but with budgets being slashed all round, there is no money for the kind of heavy-grade data analysis that would be needed to track people down.
Of course, with more wide-eyed university students buying online instead of taking a trip into a dodgy part of town, there are far more scammers looking to prey on the unwary. Especially when buying harder drugs, or other illegal commodities like firearms, scammers outnumber real sellers probably ten to one, in my experience. Of course, if you lose your money online trying to buy heroin or a pistol, you have to be pretty stupid to call the police.
Perhaps, scammers undermining trust in the big-name, supposedly safe sites like Silk Road is one of the only things stopping online drug dealing from exploding into the mainstream. On the other hand, the professionalism of SR's owners will keep it going for a while. Watch this space.
Original thread: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/technology/willardfoxton2/100008731/