Last week, FBI officials caught the mastermind behind an underground e-commerce site called Silk Road, which has been called the “Amazon of illegal drugs.” Since its creation in 2011, the site took in $1.2 billion in revenue in the form of a digital currency called Bitcoins by offering a forum for drug dealers, assassins, and computer hackers to ply their wares.
Ross Ulbricht, a 29-year-old chemical engineer, ran Silk Road under the alias “Dread Pirate Roberts” or “DPR” on a Tor network that concealed his computer’s IP address. Despite the sophisticated techniques the FBI used in their attempt to find DPR, his identity remained a mystery. Finally, agents caught a break when they ran the type of search of the same type of public information that we use nearly every day.
FBI agents had noticed that a person using the handle “Altoid” had written comments on discussion forums about hallucinogenic mushrooms and Bitcoins in an effort to publicize Silk Road. Eight months after his initial post, Altoid again appeared on the Bitcoin forum. This time, he was searching for a new employee, perhaps to replace the one that he allegedly attempted to have tortured and killed by an undercover FBI agent. Altoid’s job posting asked applicants to write to email@example.com. And there you have it. With no coercion, no wiretapping, no access to confidential personal records, the Dread Pirate Roberts unmasked himself.
We have said time and time again that a Google search is never enough. However, it can come in handy, as we previously explained here, while profiling an individual’s online presence. As part of our comprehensive pre-investigation briefing process, we always ask our clients to identify the target’s e-mail and social media handles. We have found that HappyGuy73@email.com will also be HappyGuy73 on social media sites and comment boards. To name some examples, a search of online handles has helped us find defendants and witnesses on the run from process servers. We were also able to discover that the beneficiary of a trust who claimed to have no contact with her siblings was, in fact, Facebook friends with them.
It just goes to show that sometimes even the most sophisticated tools are no substitute for thorough client briefing, a bit of creative thinking, and a simple internet search.