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DEA takes I-TEAM inside its operation to stop illegal sales on the 'Dark Web'

Everything from drugs to murder is for sale in this dangerous cyberspace

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It's an underground world where everything from drugs, to guns, to murder are all for sale with a few key strokes. The Dark Web is described by law enforcement as the "Amazon" for anything illegal, and federal agents in Florida are trying to shut it all down.

The I-TEAM was invited to South Florida to go inside the headquarters of the Drug Enforcement Agency to reveal what's being sold day and night in this dangerous cyberspace, and to let us see firsthand what an elite unit is doing to keep our communities safe.

"On the Dark Web, even when we do an undercover buy, we don't know where the drugs are coming from. We don't know if they are coming from overseas or whatever state," explained Jane, an undercover DEA agent working as part of that elite cyber unit in Miami.

This specialized unit was created nearly two years ago because going after drug dealers on the Dark Web is extremely difficult compared to going after drug dealers on the street -- because the Dark Web offers anonymity to both the dealer and the customer. 

"Opioids is a big thing, but we have a lot of synthetic narcotics coming out of China. We have fentanyl. We have marijuana, MDA, all the same drugs you see on the streets you will see on the Dark Web," she explained.

Jane says users are anonymous because their IP addresses are constantly bouncing between multiple computer servers located outside the U.S., making it hard to determine the origin of any given address and who it belongs to. So agents spend months and sometimes years trying to track suspects and collect evidence.

"We have to develop several innovative techniques in able to identify internet enabled drug traffickers," she said.

Jane is not able to provide specific details about those techniques without compromising current investigations, but can say her unit follows the money trail -- or in some cases the cryptocurrency -- used to make illegal purchases. 

And then, they're also looking at the sites with the most activity. On the Dark Web, there are sections where people can post reviews.

"It's all about the market and the drugs. This vendor is good. This cocaine is bad," said Jane.

The better the review, the more popular the market site. Jane says the most popular generate an estimated $1 billion a year. We can't show you those sites without hindering active investigations across the United States and abroad, but sellers are bringing in the big bucks.

"We do have intelligence stating the administrator of one of these markets makes about $400,000 per week in commission fees," Jane said. "Every time a vendor sells drugs, the vendor will pay a small percentage to the administrator." 

While people selling illegal drugs online are making millions, many buyers are overdosing and dying. Jane says once she and fellow undercover agents arrest a vendor, they use a non-scientific way of tracking fatal overdoses to drugs bought on the Dark Web.

"We were able to get their client list, shipping address and names of people they sold to all over the internet, and we were able to compare to obituary listings," she explained. "One vendor can be responsible for 20 to 40 overdose deaths. We can't 100-percent prove that vendor was responsible for those deaths, but there is a good correlation."

Because agents are finding more than illegal drugs for sale on the Dark Web -- like illegal firearms and murder-for-hire -- the DEA's elite cyber unit is made up of agents from ATF, the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the IRS, U.S. Postal Service, and the U.S. Secret Service.

"The benefit of having a cyber unit with several federal agencies is every federal agency has their specific mission statements. So if anything has to do with terrorism, arms trafficking or murder-for-hire, the appropriate agency will take lead in investigating that specific crime," Jane said.

Agencies in other countries are often assisting the cyber unit because cases that are currently open here in Florida and across the U.S. typically have ties overseas. They're sharing information to infiltrate the places that are now the "Amazon Prime" of anything and everything illegal.  

Although the cyber unit in South Florida hasn't been around long, Jane says it played a key role in shutting down two Dark Web market sites.

Is your child on the Dark Web?

Parents should be concerned about the Dark Web and need to make sure their kids don't have access. Besides illegal and dangerous items for sale -- including stolen identities -- experts warn it's full of child predators.

You can't get on the Dark Web with regular browsers like Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer. Instead, a special browser is needed, and the most popular one is Tor.

Look at your child's devices and computers. If you find the Tor software is installed, experts say you should remove it immediately and then talk to your child about why it was installed and what it was being used for. Unlike regular web browsers, you won't be able to see a search history on Tor.

About the Authors:

Award-winning broadcast and multimedia journalist with 20 years experience.