A nationwide law enforcement action aimed at shining a light on those who use the dark web to buy and sell illegal opiates has resulted in hundreds of interactions and arrests of individuals who may have considered their seemingly anonymous online transactions beyond the reach of authorities.
The FBI-led enforcement action last week, named Operation Disarray, is part of a recently launched Department of Justice initiative to disrupt the sale of opioids online and was the first operation of its kind to occur simultaneously in all 50 states.
“The point of Operation Disarray,” said Special Agent Chris Brest, who helped organize the effort from FBI Headquarters, “is to put drug traffickers on notice: Law enforcement is watching when people buy and sell drugs online. For those who think the Darknet provides anonymity,” he explained, “you are mistaken.”
Darknet marketplaces resemble legitimate e-commerce sites, complete with shopping carts, thousands of products, sales promotions, and customer reviews. But the Darknet sites’ drop-down menus direct customers to cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, and other illegal drugs.
The marketplaces are accessed through a type of software that claims to make the buyer and seller anonymous. Drug users anywhere in the world can sit in front of a computer screen and, with a click of the mouse, buy narcotics without having to risk a face-to-face interaction. “Drug trafficking is changing,” Brest said. “The environment is moving from real-world to the virtual realm, and it’s on the rise.”
Such unfettered access to illegal drugs, said Special Agent Eric Yingling, who specializes in Darknet investigations from the FBI’s Pittsburgh Division, “can accelerate someone’s addiction because the drugs are so easy to obtain. It also facilitates a low barrier of entry to becoming a trafficker,” he explained. “We see a number of individuals go from consuming to becoming distributors because they’ve become comfortable using the marketplaces. Anyone who owns a computer could potentially be involved in this type of activity.”