Pretty often, dark web criminals make mistakes.
Ross Ulbricht, convicted creator of the Silk Road drug marketplace, asked for help with the site and posted his personal email address to a forum. Blake Benthall, the suspected administrator of the second Silk Road, registered a server in his own name.
But both of those cases might have just been topped in terms of audacity, or sloppiness, depending on how you look at it. A suspected longtime dark web drug vendor has been charged, in part, because he supposedly attempted to trademark his drug-dealing brand under his own name.
On Tuesday, the US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of California announced the arrest of David Ryan Burchard, 38, of Merced, California. Burchard allegedly used the alias "caliconnect" on the original Silk Road, and similar usernames on its successor and other dark web marketplaces, including the now-defunct Agora, and Abraxas and AlphaBay, which are both still live.
It's unclear exactly how the investigation into Burchard got rolling. Mathew Larsen, a Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agent writes in an affidavit that in March 2015 he observed Burchard's sale of "millions of dollars of Bitcoins to an unlicensed digital currency exchanger."
"I was, and continue to be, unable to identify a legitimate source of [Burchard's] large amount of Bitcoins," Larsen continues. A GPS tracking device was then placed onto Burchard's car, and physical surveillance was carried out of Burchard allegedly delivering several packages of drugs to post offices.
Eventually, Larsen somehow learned that Burchard "had registered or attempted to register and trademark the phrase 'caliconnect.'" From here, investigators searched Reddit and other public websites, and discovered reviews from people claiming to have ordered marijuana from a dark web vendor called "caliconnect."
According to a list provided to Larsen by HSI Headquarters of high profile Silk Road vendors who have generated over $100,000, "caliconnect" was described as a marijuana vendor, with sales of over $1,250,000.
The user "is listed on the NTC Vendor List as the [sic]one of the largest vendors on Silk Road," Larsen's affidavit continues. "The FBI estimates that 'caliconnect' was the eighteenth largest vendor worldwide out of the approximately 4,000 vendors who sold goods on the Silk Road."
Larsen obtained Silk Road private messages, likely from the FBI's seizure of the Silk Road server in October 2013, and reviewed logs of conversations between Caliconnect and other users. Some of these chats related to drug transactions paid for with "money paks"—prepaid cards that can be reloaded with currency. A subpoena to the relevant companies lead Larsen to specific cards, registered to Burchard.
In January 2016, investigators executed a search warrant at a residence and seized several computers and storage devices, as well as a Jaguar, two Mercedes and a Chevy. Larsen claims that a thumb-drive contained messages linked to previously known drug shipments uncovered by investigators.
Bizarrely, and in perhaps another nod to Burchard's apparent desire to cement his own label, investigators found "pieces of clothing apparel with the label 'caliconnect,'" according to the affidavit. In an interview with Larsen, Burchard claimed "Caliconnect" was the name of his clothing brand.
"The Department of Justice and our federal law enforcement partners will continue to investigate and prosecute major interstate narcotics traffickers," US Attorney Benjamin Wagner said in a statement. "Those traffickers who believe they can escape the scrutiny of law enforcement by conducting their business on the dark-web and receiving payments in digital currency are mistaken."
Read the full complaint here: