Buying a gun on the dark web is theoretically pretty easy, but a recent series of busts shows how risky it can be. A six-month joint investigation between law enforcement in Australia and the United States, which involved law enforcement operating undercover as a weapons dealer, has led to a series of arrests and charges spanning continents.
It started when the US Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) identified a 33-year-old US-based dark web vendor back in September 2014, who was selling weapons to a "worldwide client base", according to a press release from the Australian Federal Police (AFP). This arrest was the result of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) providing "relevant information" to the HSI (no detail on what this information was is given). HSI then "commenced a covert operation using the online alias account" to identify users trying to purchase illegal weapons.
An AFP spokesperson would not comment on the specific dark web market, or markets, involved in the operation. But Gwern Branwen, a security researcher who has been following this story since April, believes that he has identified the market and the user account of the arrested weapons seller that was commandeered by HSI. He laid out his evidence on the DarkNetMarkets sub-Reddit.
It starts with the bust of another weapons buyer. In April, the US Department of Justice announced the arrest of US-based Justin Moreira, 21, charged with the purchase of a Walther PPK/S .380 calibre pistol and a silencer from a federal undercover agent some time after January 2015 for around $2,500 in bitcoin, according to a DoJ press release.
Moreira used the account "jd497" to order this weapon, as laid out in the criminal complaint. This account was on the Agora marketplace, where Branwen explains that a seller who advertised those wares went under the username "weaponsguy". Branwen also provides some other indications that "weaponsguy" is the account that was taken over by law enforcement. For example, that gun order was shipped from Montana, judging by the UPS tracking number.
The busted weapons seller was also from Montana, according to the AFP. Branwen additionally thinks the dates line up as mentioned in the new AFP release.
Once in control of the weapon vendor's account, HSI agents went undercover. From here, six controlled sales were made to addresses in Australia, which were presumably provided by the unsuspecting buyers. Those deliveries led to 15 separate search warrants through February and March, and the arrest of four suspects.
The suspects are all male, including a 25-year-old from Liverpool, New South Wales, a 26-year-old from Gladstone, Queensland, and a 24-year-old and 25-year-old from the Australia Capital Territories, an AFP spokesperson told Motherboard. The two men from the Australia Capital Territories will appear in court on 25 June.
In all, 34 charges have been brought forward, the spokesperson said, and these cover a wide range of offenses, not all of which are weapon related. The AFP explains that "four illegal firearms, ammunition, two clandestine laboratories, precursor chemicals, methamphetamines, pseudoephedrine, steroids, computer equipment and mobile telephones were seized."
But it wasn't just Australia that was affected: the operation also led to 17 arrests across the United Kingdom, Europe, and North America, according to the AFP press release. These resulted in the seizure of weapons, body armor, drugs, and $80,000 in Bitcoin.
The HSI did not immediately respond to a request for more details.
Whereas buying drugs on the dark web may seem relatively "safe", purchasing guns is a whole other story. While a low number of drug buyers have been arrested in the past, this elaborate undercover operation shows the lengths law enforcement will go to track down those trying to illegally purchase weapons.