Chapman brought a special guest speaker to the Argyros Student Union Stage yesterday – a nameless drug smuggler whose face and body were obscured as he detailed ordering molly and other drugs off the dark web for eventual sale.
“Even though Johnny wasn’t on the street corner we still found him, we still arrested him, we still convicted him,” said Rahul Gupta, an Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney.
Gupta warned an audience of students, concerned parents, and staff members about the false sense of security many students have when ordering drugs off the dark web, believing their transactions to be anonymous and undetectable. His presentation also included warnings about buying cryptocurrencies on the dark web – a practice that is not illegal, but fraught with consumer risk.
“Johnny,” a self-described former finance professional and college graduate from Orange County, spoke from behind a jerry-rigged white screen. His hidden, disembodied voice told the audience how he lost money in risky cryptocurrency investments and wound up arrested for smuggling drugs he ordered over the “dark web,” a shadow internet that allows people to conduct transactions anonymously.
The dark web is data that resides on the internet but requires a special browser to access, such as Tor. Using Tor protects user anonymity and shields IP addresses so web behavior – and web users – can’t be tracked. Because of these shields, Tor is not only popular with investigative journalists who want to protect confidential sources but criminals who wish to escape detection for dealing anything from Ecstasy to child pornography.
While Gupta did not reveal the sentence Johnny received, he acknowledged “consideration” was extended in exchange for Johnny’s willingness to speak in public about his experience.
Johnny said he smoked weed and occasionally did molly and cocaine, but never considered dealing until stumbling on the dark web and concluding it would be easy to purchase large quantities for profit as an anonymous buyer.
His first flirtation was cryptocurrency. He withdrew money from his 401K to invest in cryptocurrency, expecting a fast profit. Instead, his investments tanked, and he turned to drug dealing.
“I went into a side hustle, I wanted to make big money, I wanted to live large,” Johnny said.
He started by ordering and distributing 50 ecstasy pills. That led to thousands more. Soon, he was spending five to six thousand dollars on a single drug order.
“[The expectation of making easy money] can be very enticing,” Gupta said. “It’s a lure when you’re on social media to want to live the fast life, and this is the hard way to make an easy living.”
The prime customers for narcotics imported through the dark web are college-aged students and a majority of people who sell them are around the same age, according to Gupta.
“This is a relatively new phenomenon that is sweeping not only Orange County but the United States and it’s tremendously affecting young people,” Gupta said.
And it’s abetted by visual social media platforms that motivate young people to desire more materialistic things, Gupta said.
[Dealing] is like [when] you watch those movies where it’s all glamorous at the beginning,” Johnny said. “Then at the end, it’s the mug shot. All the flashing lights and [his fancy life] just ended.”
Before his arrest, Johnny lost around $12,000 in cryptocurrency to scammers who promised to send him drugs but vanished into the recesses of the dark web after he paid them.
“If you’re going to venture onto the dark web, just be aware of what the risks are out there,” Gupta said. “If you think ‘hey I can remain anonymous and maybe I can engage in something illegal, maybe I won’t get caught,’ just know that people do get caught.”
“Nobody thinks they’ll get caught,” Johnny said. “But in the back of my head, I knew I was playing Russian Roulette.”
Johnny’s package was flagged by Customs and Border Protection. When he went to pick it up from the post office law enforcement was waiting for him.
Undercover agents are on the dark web monitoring dealers and engaging transactions with the intention of making busts, Gupta said. And illegal drug orders are regularly intercepted by U.S. Customs. The lure of dark web drugs “is ruining a lot of lives,” Gupta said. “Both in terms of the people who consume the product and those who are selling the product that get caught.”
Gupta also addressed the risky nature of cryptocurrency investments.
The rising use of cryptocurrency may make financial transactions untraceable – it’s why crypto coins are the currency in ransomware attacks – but that also means consumers are unlikely to recover any money they lose in deals gone bad, Gupta said.
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies can be bought at Crypto ATMs, on the regular web, and at in-person exchanges. There are over 1800 types of cryptocurrencies to choose from, including Ethereum, ZCash, and Monero, Gupta said.
“Cryptocurrency is a whole new area in financial services and none of them, not a single one of these 1800, is backed by any type of government entity or any type of bank,” Gupta explained. “It’s just a risk you need to be aware of.”
Because there’s no central system backing up these currencies, their value fluctuates constantly, and they’re not insured. Yet, more retailers and merchants are beginning to accept bitcoin. In Orange County, a Tesla can be bought with enough Bitcoin, according to Gupta.
Cryptocurrency isn’t tangible but can be stored on phones, paper, and electronic thumb drives. But codes can be stolen, and with them, cryptocurrency.
“Cryptocurrency is legal, using the dark web is legal,” Gupta said. “There are some risks involved when you venture into these new areas of technology.”
Physical threats are also arising, like robberies of people for their cryptocurrencies during set up exchanges, ransomware, and blackmail.