ANNOUNCEMENT: Since the Silk Road 2.0 bust by the feds a few other Darknet Markets have fallen. Silk Road 3 is up and running with a big selection of goods.
For Internet fanatics, the story of the Silk Road’s rise and fall is one of the news that they will never forget. It is a story worthy of a film of its own. Yet, most great stories start with a beginning, and there lies the problem.
By mid-2013, Silk Road is facilitating sales of drugs amounting to $300,000 a day. At this point, Silk Road has been running for about two years. For the authorities, the real problem was very basic – they simply did not know who the man behind the curtains is. This all changed when an unlikely agent came into the scene.
Most people would imagine a super techie genius to hunt down the man known as DPR. In reality, the name is Gary L. Alford. And no, he is not from the FBI, Homeland Security or from other big name government security agencies. Mr. Alford is an IRS agent. It was a tax sleuth that actually first identified Ross W. Ulbricht as the Dread Pirate Roberts. If that’s not surprising enough, you won’t believe how he traced Mr. Ulbricht.
Once again, most people would assume that Gary Alford used supercomputers with a mind-boggling algorithm to search for the infamous man behind Silk Road. Sorry to burst your bubble, but Mr. Alford simply relied on trusty old’ Google. And no, it hasn’t taken complicated algorithms or scripts to bust the case wide open. Mr. Alford simply used his understanding of human behavior, how things work and persistence. His formula was actually very simple, but it took some time to execute; which makes Mr. Alford a genius in his own ways. But, Mr. Alford had his shares of massive disappointment while grueling the case.
It took 3 months for Mr. Alford to find enough evidence to present his case to his superiors, which states that Ross W. Ulbricht is the Dread Pirate Roberts. You might be thinking that everyone in the operation was thrilled to finally find a prime suspect.
This was not the case. In fact, a day in June 2013, Gary Alford was running to work with adrenaline pumping in his blood. Mr. Alford was expecting that he’ll be greeted with excited as he finally uncovered the possible real name of Dread Pirate Rogers, including his address. Instead, he was greeted with a brush off. Looking back at it, even Mr. Alford admitted that it was easy for him to be ignored.
Gary Alford joined the investigation pretty late. Also, he came from the IRS joining the ranks of other more prominent agencies in a joint operation. Lastly, Mr. Alford was not a real techie when compared to the cybercrime guys of the FBI. Mr. Alford looked at the problem in a different perspective, which leads him to the pinpointing Ross W. Ulbricht as DPR.
In this day and age of technical investigation, it’s easy to assume that you need genius-level tech skills and knowledge to break a case as big as the Silk Road. However, for Mr. Alford, he largely relies on human behavior. For him, here is a guy, sitting behind to a computer, making a stupid mistake prior to Silk Road’s meteoric rise.
Yes, it was a careless mistake of Mr. Ulbricht that led to his demise. In retrospect, it was not really that reckless, as he never envisioned how Silk Road would become a giant player in the drug trade.
Mr. Alford used Google’s advance search options. Specifically, he was looking for Internet postings for the first mentions of the Silk Road. By late May of 2013, Mr. Alford spotted a name known as “Altoid,” asking if anyone has heard of the Silk Road, and this was in early 2011.
During the first weekends of June 2013, Mr. Alford scoured every posting that “Altoid” made. It’s similar to scouring for evidence under trashcans near the area of a crime scene. He then got lucky.
“Altoid” made a comment, about asking for programming help, and he posted his email address “[email protected]” along with it. This was very lucky as “Altoid” deleted the comment, but was preserved because of a reply made by another user. By this time, Mr. Alford had a name.
Mr. Alford continued to search everything to know about Mr. Ulbricht, and what he found out was very interesting. Mr. Ulbricht was very vocal about his political views on his social media accounts. Here is a guy that admired free-market economy, admired Ludwig von Mises and a libertarian. These were the same qualities that you can find with a Dread Pirate Robert’s post in the Silk Road forum. Mr. Alford forwarded his finding to his supervisors.
However, it failed to generate some buzz, but Mr. Alford continued to collect evidence against Mr. Ulbricht. At the time, his goal was to make Mr. Ulbricht’s name as a potential suspect of the Silk Road, next to the DRP, Dead Pirate Roberts and Altoid aliases. When his findings were not being heard, he went straight up to the head.
Mr. Serrin Turner was the Manhattan federal prosecutor and was overseeing the entire operation. Mr. Turner was juggling different operations and Mr. Alford’s persistence lead to a heated argument. For Mr. Alford, it seems he’s not making any progress and was one of his colleagues even suggested about quitting.
Thankfully, Mr. Alford ignored the suggestion and continued to build his case. During the early days of September, he requested one of his colleagues to run another background check of Mr. Ulbricht, just in case he missed something critical. Mr. Alford’s colleague then gave him a major break.
Mr. Alford’s colleague found out a report concerning Mr. Ulbricht. There were nine fake IDs seized at the Canadian border. The fake IDs were addressed to Mr. Ulbricht. As the report of the incident was being read, things grew much more intriguing.
The report stated that Mr. Ulbricht was questioned about the fake IDs. Mr. Ulbricht declined any idea about them. However, Mr. Ulbricht voluntarily commented that “hypothetically” anyone could order fake IDs in a site known as the Silk Road.
Armed with this finding, Mr. Alford called Mr. Turner and forwarded his information. This time, Mr. Turner was ecstatic about the report, including the use of profane words out of sheer enthusiasm. This is where the next chapter of the Silk Road story starts.
Mr. Turner then mobilized resources focusing on Mr. Ulbricht. This is the part of the story in which most people know about – the laptop-grabbing ending and a life sentence conviction.
But like every great story, it starts somewhere. For this part, the real breakthrough started with Mr. Alford pinpointing the real identity of Dread Pirate Roberts.