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.
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.”
“For those who think the Darknet provides anonymity, you are mistaken.”
Chris Brest, special agent, FBI Headquarters
But there are risks with the Darknet, Yingling pointed out. Buyers might get more than they bargained for. Opiates laced with fentanyl, for example, have resulted in deadly overdoses throughout the country. And there is the very real risk of arrest and prosecution because specially trained investigators can use a variety of techniques to infiltrate the marketplaces.
Operation Disarray was designed, in part, to highlight those risks for buyers and sellers. Hundreds of FBI agents and federal partners—including personnel from the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Internal Revenue Service, Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Postal Inspection Service—conducted searches, made arrests, and carried out “knock and talks” with more than 160 individuals known to have bought or sold drugs through the marketplaces. Leads from the investigation identified 19 overdose deaths of persons of interest.