This article originally appeared on VICE Australia
Everybody knows those pop up ads promising that "you can make $2,000 every week online without ever leaving home!" are bullshit. They're just another fake get rich quick scheme—too good to be true.Except that's exactly 19-year-old New Zealander Aaron* is doing.
Right now, he's raking actually raking in $5,000 NZD a week, although it's not exactly legal. Using stolen credit cards, Aaron—whose name we can't disclose for obvious reasons—buys digital gift cards and sells them off on the dark web for less than they're worth.
With employees around the world, Aaron is living the hedonistic life most teenagers dream of—throwing parties with catered alcohol, booking five-star hotels with his friends. He even owns an Audi A5.
Most of us might think Aaron has got it made, but to him none of this is really enough. He says his failure to make his first million by 18 years old took a large "emotional toll." But Aaron has high hopes that he can grow his earnings to $50,000 a week over the next two years. His plan? To cement his status as his hero reincarnate by becoming the millennial Jordan Belfort. We asked him how the hell he's going to pull it off.
VICE: First of all, explain to me—someone of average technological skill with a very surface-level knowledge of the deep web—how you set up your business.
Aaron: It's fairly simple. All you have to do is download Tor Browser (it's a web browser just like Chrome or Firefox which can access .onion websites) and start exploring. Everyone thinks you have to be a guru or have talent to be "good with computers." Being able to code is not this magic thing. Learn how the internet works, learn how data is sent back and forward.
You don't have to have skill to browse the deep web or even make purchases, if you are careful and have common sense. But having any scaleable business on the dark web requires a hell of an effort and work. The stuff you can find on there is, honestly, no joke. I had been on the dark web making purchases and experimenting for close to a year with close to $2,000 NZD down the drain before I made any type of profit.
So how did it all kick off?
I got the idea to start selling the items when I bought some Calvin Klein shoes from Amazon with my first credit card info purchase on the dark web. A guy I knew asked me where I got my shoes from and if he could buy them. I bought the credit card details for $6.50 USD and sold the shoes for $199 NZD. I knew money was to be made from this.
You're modelling yourself after Jordan Belfort, which makes me think you would enjoy being flashy with your money. Do you have a cover job? Do your parents or friends have any idea where you get your money from?
I own and operate a legal e-commerce store. It's mostly a cover up with maybe two to five sales a week, but no one else knows about that. I just tell people that I am making thousands of sales a week and that's where my money comes from. I have one close friend who knows about this since he started out with me, but he decided this wasn't for him and left. It's just me now, but I do exchange ideas with him every now and then.
Being flashy with money is quite a trick. The key is to not overdo it, yet. Once I start making close to $50k a week, then I will start going all out. Until then, being flashy consists of booking five-star hotels on the Gold Coast for Christmas for four of my friends and myself, buying takeaways every day, and being able to throw parties that have free alcohol. And my Audi.
You mention you now have employees. How much do you tell them? How difficult is it to maintain a business where secrecy is of the utmost importance?
It is quite difficult and it can be quite nerve-wracking to maintain secrecy in my business. You become quite paranoid and start paying attention to even the smallest details. I try not to have any contacts within New Zealand. You are perhaps the first one.
But I tell my employees everything. These guys are employed remotely from outside the country. We communicate over encrypted software and e-mails for utmost secrecy. I'd have to say that my risk evaluation skill has blown through the roof because of this venture. I will never drink and drive or reveal any kind of identity because the risks associated are too high, you know?
I can't believe I'm your only contact in New Zealand. How frustrated do you get with not being able to tell friends the truth? Do you ever worry about getting too close to someone, romantically or otherwise, and them finding out?
It can get pretty frustrating to be honest but I found a way to deal with it. If I have to absolutely talk about it, I will just say things in my clean business terms. My last girlfriend thought I found a way to get free goods from a retail site because of a bug. When she saw a few iPhones, she flipped out and told me to return them because "it wasn't right." No, I wouldn't tell anyone romantically close to me. I do worry that someone close to me can find out about this and they will cut ties with me.
What's it like living with that kind of paranoia?
I don't mind living with the paranoia. It doesn't get to me as much because I'm an inherently calm and collected person. I don't freak out much in most situations and I am cold-blooded. I think that's another reason why both my clean and deep web businesses are succeeding.
Have you had any close calls in terms of security risk?
I've honestly not had any major close calls so far which makes me doubt how real the portrayal of the police and secret service is in real life compared to the movies. The closest was when my friend who worked with me threatened to go to the police if I didn't stop this. We are close friends again now but back then, that caused me major headaches.
Shit, how did that resolve itself?
He went to the station to file a report but I didn't know that at the time. He told me later on that he did that but he never handed it in because he thought he would get in trouble and it wasn't going to be doing anyone any good. We settled down as friends after that. He is one of the people coming to the Gold Coast with me for Christmas.
Okay, so what does a regular week look like for you?
Well, I'm studying a rather rigorous degree at university and I like to have high grades. So my week consists of studying, checking, and responding to emails about my e-commerce store and dark web business, creating listings for various items on sites such as eBay, dealing with both e-commerce clients and dark web clients, as well as creating new relationships with important people. It's all about who you know and how trusted you are on the deep web. You don't feel any, sort of, moral dissonance?
Well, the process of me buying credit card details, buying items of major retailers, and selling them off might seem like I am "scamming" the innocent but it's quite the opposite.
See, banks are obliged to protect credit card holders in case of theft and fraud. When the credit card holders report that money is gone missing off their accounts, the bank will contact the retailer and chargeback their money or pay it back themselves. So in 99 percent of the cases it's either the major retailer who loses money or the major banks.
Is there a kind of Robin Hood element to it? Can you see yourself redistributing your money?
This is where the dilemma kicks in. I would call myself a pretty self-centred, selfish person. But, at the same time, I want to help people to the best of my ability. At this point I only use the money for good when I feel bad about myself. Two days ago I donated a hefty sum to an international charity because earlier that day I received a payment worth $3,000 from fraudulent goods, but I can certainly see myself helping out friends and family once I start to earn more.
What's the worst case scenario that might arise out of all of this?
To be honest, I'm most afraid of getting caught. I think that should be what everyone who does what I do should fear. The moment you lose that fear is when it's game over. Two years ago, we discovered that my father was this cold hearted scammer. He swindled a lot of people and when shit hit the fan, he committed suicide. We discovered all the bad stuff afterwards. My mother is an honest woman who works in real high places, so I know how devastated she would be if she knew about what I'm doing. I guess you can say that, I am most afraid of becoming like my father. I have promised myself to never go as far.
I'm so sorry. Have you established any limits to prevent yourself from getting in too deep? An exit strategy for when it gets hot?
I told myself I wouldn't screw over any major institutions directly such as banks–unless we're talking about millions and had a solid plan. Also that I will never screw over friends and family, because if I ever do that, I lose all moral integrity. It just all goes downhill from there. I don't see an exit at this point because everything's going good. If shit ever hits the fan, I will think of something quick.