For several years now, deep web marketplace the Silk Road has been providing technology journalists with sensational headlines. The site facilitates the “anonymous” sale and purchase of illicit goods. Sign up, make a purchase, pay in Bitcoin and wait for your ounce of weed to arrive in the post. It was supposed to be the biggest thing to hit drug dealing since crack.
So you can only imagine the excitement generated in the bedroom-offices of these online journalists when they discovered that the Silk Road had set up an “Armory” – that is, an online gun store. Within days, readers of their quality publications were being regaled with tales of “guns available for sale online”.
But there was one problem: there was no evidence of a gun sale ever being made on The Armory. Ordering a gram of coke is one thing, but shelling out for an overpriced Glock from a seller with no reputation is another. It came as no surprise when the Silk Road decided to shut its Armory down.
Another small issue the tech hacks failed to mention was the reality of using the Silk Road website: it’s terrible. The site is slow, often unusable and suffers from frequent downtime. On one occasion Silk Road users couldn’t access their accounts (and thus the millions of dollars in Bitcoin stored in them) for over two weeks.
The market was right for someone to challenge Silk Road’s monopoly, and that’s exactly what happened. Two rivals sprang up: Atlantis and Black Market Reloaded. Both sites were vastly more responsive and gained a reputation for reliability. Most interesting was the “Firearms” section of Black Market Reloaded, which became active.
Guns weren’t just being offered for sale; they were actually being sold. How could we tell? Because sellers would post multiple pictures of the gun for sale next to a handwritten note of their name and the sales were authenticated by the site, which meant money was being paid into escrow and being released to the sellers by customers who would then leave feedback.
Importantly, many of the buyers had extensive purchase history with the site and were frequent contributors Black Market Reloaded’s forum. Sometime, purchasers, who often bought from overseas, even posted pictures of their goods with dated newspapers from their own countries. It was enough to convince many that the sellers were legitimate and Black Market Reloaded became the first marketplace on the web where guns could be purchased easily.
The more time I spent tracking the firearm sales on BMR, the more I became convinced of two things: one, the sales were real and two, something was going to go seriously wrong before very long. The sellers had become brazen, shipping across borders to countries with strict customs procedures.
It didn’t matter how well they claimed to have concealed their orders; somebody was going to get caught. I couldn’t buy a gun to prove that weapons were being sold, so I had to sit back and wait for a customs x-ray machine to do its job.
I didn’t have to wait long. Two weeks ago, Adam Bunger, a 33-year-old technology entrepreneur from Kentucky, was arrested for selling firearms on BMR.
If the police are right and Mr Bunger was selling guns on BMR, which one of the handful of sellers was he? When the details behind his arrest came out, it soon became clear. Mr Bunger’s gun dealing was first rumbled in July when a Modelo Super 9mm pistol he shipped to Australia was discovered at customs hidden inside a broken Xbox.
The customer to whom it was addressed squealed to the police that they’d bought it off BMR and set off a chain of inquiry. The package was traced back to Bowling Green, a credit card was linked to the parcel, and Mr Bunger was identified by mail clerks.
Two other packages were then intercepted: an “Uzi-style pistol”, discovered in an Xbox bound for the UK, and assault rifle parts, found in a package sent to Australia. Mr Burger was then fingered by a mail clerk as he attempted to send a .22 caliber Taurus pistol to Sweden, hidden inside a computer power supply box.
For those familiar with the BMR firearms market it became instantly obvious which seller had been caught, one of the site’s most trusted dealers: Grass4Cash. Grass4Cash had sold a Modelo Super 9mm and a Mac-10 (an Uzi-type gun in a time frame that lines up with the Police seizures).
Additionally, both his Grass4Cash account and an account called demonfifa, which had sold over 1,000 stolen credit cards, stolen identities, fake IDs and shipments of marijuana, and which many users of BMR suspected was run by him as well, went quiet following Burger’s arrest.
The Adam Burger who was caught with his pants down, using the same post office, using his credit card to send guns and going by the inventive name “John Smith”, couldn’t be anyone but Grass4Cash, who swaggered around BMR as one of the first, most prolific and most trusted gun dealers on the internet.
Grass4Cash began selling in September 2012. In May this year, he claimed to be receiving over hundred enquiries a day about his services. He constantly updated his arsenal with a wide variety of of weapons and boasted of his “untouchability”. His profile read, “Best stealth packaging: Gets into Australia/UK or anywhere else easy… Current success rate: 100%”
The hundreds of customers who bought from him inundated his profile with positive feedback. S1nrgy who bought a Ruger LCP .380 from him had this to say:
“I can’t recommend G4C enough! Fantastic communication and very fast delivery. Need a gun? THIS is the guy to go to.”
At the beginning of July, just days after Australian customs had discovered the smuggled pistol, Grass4Cash was still brazenly advertising his wares. He was offering a .25 pocket pistol for $1,000.
“This is a great conceal weapon, and a great piece to have your back. The firearm comes with 1 7 round magazine…For just $1060 including express shipping (Yes, you to Australians), this is a steal.)”
As well as the pistol, Grass4Cash was offering an American Gangster favourite: a brand new Mac-10, a steal for $3,500. It could well be this very weapon that police intercepted on its way to the UK.
The users of the Black Market Reloaded forums, who once sang Grass4Cash’s praises, are in shock. The ease with with an icon of their lawless and borderless trade dream was taken down has led to much panicked speculation about the future of BMR.
For years now, users of the more nefarious corners of the deep web have been living under the illusion that they’re untouchable. But only one of the original ring of reputable gun dealers is still advertising on the site and like the Armory before it, the firearms section of BMR is filling up with scammers.
The arrest of Grass4Cash is just the latest in a string of events that have shattered the stability of this dark illegal market. In July, the FBI took out Freedom Hosting, which was alleged to have been hosting the majority of child pornography on the web. There are persistent rumours that the online black market sites are under heavy surveillance – though it was an old fashioned parcel intercept that compromised Grass4Cash.
All of which suggests that, together with other illegal online activities that participants were arrogant enough to imagine law enforcement could never see happening, the online gun trade may be petering out before it even really got started.