When it comes to the dark web, going undercover is one of the best ways for cops to bust dealers and buyers. This tactic has been particularly effective at tackling those who advertise guns online, with scores of arrests over the years.
Now, it appears a similar crackdown is starting on those who source or sell poisons on the dark web.
Today, a court heard how one man from the UK has been charged with buying enough ricin to kill over 1,000 people after dealing with an undercover agent. Liverpool resident Mohammed Ammer Ali, 31, is charged with trying to purchase 500mg of the poison for $500 worth of bitcoin, according to various media reports.
Ali was arrested earlier this year, after he apparently solicited a dealer in an attempt to buy the ricin. But the poison-pusher turned out to be an undercover FBI agent. After the FBI tipped off local UK police, a toy car was sent to Ali's house, but instead of containing anything dangerous it was packed with a harmless substance. The trial is ongoing.
This is far from the only case where someone has tried to buy poison on the dark web, only to find that the person on the other side of the screen is in fact an undercover agent.
Earlier this year, a 16-year-old boy, also in the UK, admitted to trying to buy poison, and in January a US man, Cheng Le, was arrested for attempting to source ricin. It was revealed that both buyers had unwittingly interacted with a law enforcement agent.
Independent researcher Gwern Branwen writes on his website that due to the "extreme similarity" of these cases, he believes that the same undercover account was responsible for busting Le, Ali, and the UK teenager. Branwen has documented every known arrest related to the dark web markets.
Poison dealers have also been arrested. Jesse Korff, 20, was sentenced to nine years in prison in February for manufacturing ricin and then selling it on the dark web. He was caught when an undercover agent arranged to purchase poison from him.
After his arrest, police managed to track down one of his customers in the UK. Kuntal Patel, 37, was sentenced to three years for possessing poison she purchased from Korff.
This trend of law enforcement setting up the cover of a dark web dealer is well established with the sale of weapons. In one six-month operation, a weapons merchant based in the US was busted, his account taken over by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and dozens of customers arrested shortly after.
In fact, the presence of undercover agents selling guns has become such a problem that Agora, the dark web's biggest marketplace, recently decided to stop listing weapons altogether.
Perhaps poisons will one day be removed from the dark web's digital shelves too.