Aussie dealers cash in on ‘eBay for drugs’
Australian drug dealers are cashing in on booming "dark web" marketplaces, where buying illicit substances is cheap and convenient, and it's virtually impossible to be caught.
In a joint news.com.au and Storyful investigation, the extent of the domestic online drugs trade has been revealed, with everything from cocaine to hospital-grade fentanyl on offer.
With little fuss and minimal risk, users can access mega stores that work much like eBay or Amazon, housing different merchants who promote their wares alongside star ratings, written feedback and even customer satisfaction guarantees.
And experts say business is booming, with Aussie users making up the largest cohort per capita of dark web drug buyers in the world.
"From all the indicators that we have, the dark web drugs trade is bigger than it's ever been in Australia," Swinburne University of Technology criminology Associate Professor James Martin told news.com.au.
"We're seeing big increases in domestic trade, with the number of Australian sellers increasing."
'ANYTHING YOU WANT'
In the same way legitimate bricks and mortar retailers once moved their operations online, a growing number of enterprising drug dealers are now embracing e-commerce too.
A review of dark web marketplaces yielded hundreds of results for Australian-based operators that sell a variety of illicit substances almost exclusively to locals.
Street drugs like cocaine, MDMA, ecstasy and marijuana were readily available, as were highly addictive substances like crystal methamphetamine and heroin.
One seller advertising themselves as "a longstanding top Aussie MDMA" vendor boasted more than 1000 positive buyer reviews in the last six months alone.
Another vendor with a similar sales history described themselves as "an Australian seller of high-quality pharmaceutical prescription drugs".
One of the largest Australian sellers on a major marketplace, who primarily deals ketamine, cocaine and amphetamines, has more than 1000 positive recent reviews and claims to have been active on other website, including several that are now defunct.
And one dealer who trades exclusively in crystal meth promised the "best service possible" and product "direct from the top of the chain", with 350 positive reviews this month.
Analysis by news.com.au and Storyful of one marketplace, regarded as the biggest dark web operator in the world, found more than 60 Australian listings for ketamine, much of it advertised as being imported from India, a major producer of the dissociative.
Also available were GHB - a psychoactive and well-known "date rape" drug - and even pentobarbital, used in Texas death row execution cocktails.
Worryingly, marketplaces also had fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that's 50 to 100-times stronger than morphine, and and carfentanil, an incredibly potent synthetic painkiller, itself 100 times the strength of fentanyl.
Both those drugs have contributed strongly to the prescription abuse crisis in the United States, which has resulted in an explosion in opioid-related deaths.
Journalist Eileen Ormsby, who authored the book Darkest Web and has researched online black markets for the better part of a decade, said the sale of extremely dangerous substances such as fentanyl was a relatively recent trend.
"It's terrifying," she said. "I don't know why it's popped up quite a bit recently, but I'd say it has a lot to do with price."
Typically, the most popular drugs traded online are MDMA, cocaine and ecstasy, while cannabis was also a hot seller, Ms Ormsby said.
'NO REAL RISK'
The dark web is a part of the internet not found via search engines, where sites are housed on overlay networks that require specific software, configurations or authorisation to access.
Users who buy drugs from overseas run the risk of their packages being intercepted by Australian Border Force at mail processing centres. Increasingly, sophisticated detection techniques are being employed in a bid to slow the flow of imports.
But in the domestic mail system, Dr Martin said there was no real risk to either sellers or buyers.
"Intercepting drugs sent within Australia is complicated, especially when you're talking about small quantities," he said.
Long-term dark web sellers boast of their shipping techniques and detection-free track records.
One local operator that news.com.au and Storyful found proudly proclaimed that they "haven't had a package intercepted ever" and explained that his drugs were vacuum sealed, alcohol rubbed and cleverly disguised.
RELATED: What exactly is the dark web?
Another vendor detailed that parcels are sent both express from New South Wales, with delivery in one-to-two business days, or by regular mail, arriving in up to 10 days.
"Products are shipped within NSW using express (Australia Post)," the seller said.
"Outside of NSW we use regular mail for your safety in case of a blitz (unless you tell us to send Express from NSW and want to risk a blitz). We have recently set up a second location within QLD for MDMA. If you wish to have it sent within QLD it will cost extra."
The lower risk of detection when receiving drugs from Australian-based sellers was one of the main reasons the domestic trade has boomed, Dr Martin said.
"As the market gets bigger and more saturated, there's even less need to buy from international dealers," he said.
Ms Ormsby said there was "pretty much no chance" of a domestic parcel being subjected to scrutiny unless authorities had specific intelligence.
"It would be very difficult to implement those detection methods," she said.
"Also, I don't know if it's quite as big a deal (for authorities) because the drugs are already in Australia. They focus is on catching them on the way into the country."
There are examples of Australian sellers being caught and prosecuted by authorities.
In October 2018, police swooped on two Gold Coast men, Simon Byrne and Michael Hutchinson, and arrested them, alleging the flatmates ran a dark web drugs operation from their apartment.
"The surveillance observed Hutchinson pick up Byrne … they attended at Peninsular Apartments … and entered a room and were in there for half an hour … from there they went to Australia Post and deposited a number of packages," Commonwealth prosecutor Daniel Whitmore said following the arrests.
Last month, a couple, also from the Gold Coast, was jailed after pleading guilty to trafficking drugs online for about a year, completing more than 600 orders that netted them $400,000.
Jonathon Grey was the principal operator and his wife, Kathleen Ann, assisted him, a Brisbane court heard. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, and she received a sentence of six years.
Ms Ormsby said policing the dark web required significant resourcing and "old-fashioned detective work".
"It's waiting for people to make mistakes, sending police onto marketplaces undercover, making buys, trying to trace Bitcoin, trying to make friends with people on the inside," she said.
JUST LIKE EBAY
Unique branding, proud track records of happy customers, competitive pricing and benefits, money back guarantees and quality assurance - that's the pitch from most sellers.
Many Australian vendors on the dark web operate like a traditional business, employing marketing tactics you would expect to see in a legit retail environment.
"A lot of dark web dealers talk about the attraction of running it like a real business," Dr Martin said.
"Some do branding. They take pride in customer satisfaction. Competition is stiff on the dark web. The information that's available puts a lot of power in the buyer's hand.
"You've got dealers all in one spot, the pricing is transparent and their track record in terms of customer service is clear."
One seller who has operated on a major marketplace since January has a positive feedback rating of 99 per cent. They promote their "high quality product, consistency, competitive low prices" and even "accepting specific custom orders".
Another prolific dark web dealer who appeared to have experienced some issues in their personal life recently posted a message apologising for delivery delays.
"It is a lot to take on whilst currently managing through some personal problems," the seller said, explaining they had been overwhelmed with a rush of purchases.
"I haven't even checked my feedback as i dont have the time i cant stand to be behind this computer at present. But im sure there are some fed up 1 gram buyers who left negative feedback, which i don't blame you as again i apologize i just couldn't prepare that many little orders & make it happen in the time available!"
A FALSE CONFIDENCE
Dark web marketplaces selling everything from drugs to stolen identity documents and phished credit card numbers began to emerge a decade ago with the arrival of Silk Road.
The original US-based online black market started in 2011 and housed a collection of sellers of nefarious wares until its closure in 2013 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
At the time, the FBI touted that by claiming such a huge scalp they had sparked the "beginning of the end" for the dark web.
They were wrong.
"All of the markets that have come since have dwarfed Silk Road in size, and it's grown more and more popular each year," Ms Ormsby said.
"The annual Global Drugs Survey, the biggest of its type in the world, shows that the number of people who purchase drugs online continues to go up.
"That doesn't necessarily mean more people are buying and taking drugs. It means people are finding a different way of buying them rather than going to 'Shady Steve' down the road or getting them in a nightclub.
"Australians are the highest per capita users of online drug markets in the world. The highest (in general numbers) is the US, followed by the UK, and Australia is often third. When you consider our population, that's quite mind-blowing."
However, Dr Martin said dark web transactions were still a "tiny proportion" of the overall drug market, both here and globally.
"The vast majority of it continues to take place the good old-fashioned way, face-to-face in the streets," he said. "I would suggest that the bulk of law enforcement focus is on the 'offline' drugs trade, and I'd argue that that's where it should be."
Globally, while growing, the dark web drugs market paled in comparison to the traditional trade, which is worth "trillions and trillions of dollars" compared to the "several hundred million" online, Ms Ormsby said.