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Crackdown on Silk Road, the underground drug market

Silk Road was like a black market Amazon.com where you could buy drugs, hacking tools, forged documents, and more. The site operated for three years without consequence, protected by the anonymizing Tor network and the forced use of hard-to-trace virtual currency Bitcoin. It seemed untouchable; its owner, the pseudonymous Dread Pirate Roberts, even declared the war on drugs over and himself the victor in an interview with Forbes. Then in October of 2013, federal agents shut down the site and arrested the man they believe to be responsible.

  • Richard Lawler

    Oct 18, 2023

    Richard Lawler

    CNBC digs into the Silk Road thief who was caught ten years later with $3 billion in stolen crypto.

    A year ago, the DOJ announced it recovered more than 50k Bitcoin stolen from the Silk Road market in 2012 and that James Zhong had pleaded guilty to the crime.

    CNBC’s 30-minute report uncovers how they found him (he moved $800 in Bitcoin to an account registered under his real name) and shows body camera footage of cops investigating his house while pretending to pursue a thief who’d broken in and stole some crypto. That person’s identity is still unknown.


  • Shoshana Wodinsky

    Jun 18, 2018

    Shoshana Wodinsky

    Alleged top Silk Road adviser extradited to US to face charges

    Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

    The Silk Road has been defunct for nearly five years after Ross Ulbricht, who founded the dark web staple, was apprehended, arrested, and given a life prison sentence without parole. Now, the US courts have caught up with Roger Clark, Ulbricht’s alleged mentor, adviser, and confidant in all things related to the dark web marketplace. This past Friday, the US Attorney’s office announced Clark’s extradition to the United States to face newly unsealed charges for his role in Silk Road’s operation.

    The indictment states that Clark (also known as “Variety Jones,” “VJ,” and “Cimon”) was a “real mentor” to Ulbricht over the course of Silk Road’s operation, and he ran much of the back end of the site. He allegedly hired programmers to maintain and speed up the site, maintained and created rules for the Silk Road community that were meant to inform Ulbricht about the site’s security vulnerabilities, and collected intel on local law enforcement’s efforts to thwart the site, among other things.

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  • Jan 13, 2016

    Colin Lecher

    Ross Ulbricht's defense files appeal to have Silk Road convictions thrown out

    In a massive appeal brief filed yesterday, Ross Ulbricht's attorney asked a court to overturn the conviction of his client, who was found guilty last year of orchestrating online drug bazaar the Silk Road.

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  • Russell Brandom

    Sep 1, 2015

    Russell Brandom

    A Silk Road task force agent has pled guilty to stealing $820,000 in bitcoin

    One of the federal officers charged with investigating the Silk Road marketplace has pled guilty to obstruction of justice and money laundering. US Secret Service agent Shaun Bridges was part of the interagency Baltimore team investigating the online marketplace and took over an administrator account on the service as part of the investigation. Ultimately, Bridges used the account to reset passwords and steal roughly 20,000 bitcoin from various wallets on the service, ultimately redeeming them for $820,000. Bridges' sentencing hearing is set for December 7th.

    Bridges acted in concert with Carl Mark Force, a fellow secret service agent who pled guilty in July, after selling the movie rights to his recollections for $240,000. The two agents were charged in March, more than a month after courts found Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht guilty for his role in maintaining the marketplace. Ulbricht's legal team has appealed the conviction, claiming the agents' malfeasance was unreasonably withheld, but because any evidence directly collected by Bridges and Force was withheld during the trial, many experts are skeptical about the appeal's chance of success.

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  • Russell Brandom

    Feb 4, 2015

    Russell Brandom

    Ross Ulbricht found guilty of Silk Road conspiracy charges

    Today in a federal courthouse in Manhattan, Ross Ulbricht has been found guilty of charges stemming from his role in the founding and operation of the Silk Road. After nearly four hours of deliberation, the jury found Ulbricht guilty on all seven counts, including charges of narcotics conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise. The Silk Road offered a platform for quasi-anonymous transactions, shielded by Tor's anonymity network and the transaction-masking properties of Bitcoin, and hosted more than $100 million in drug transactions before it was shut down by law enforcement in October of 2013.

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  • Sam Byford

    Jan 16, 2015

    Sam Byford

    Mt. Gox CEO says he isn't Silk Road's Dread Pirate Roberts

    Mark Karpeles, the CEO of stricken Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, has denied any involvement in the online black market Silk Road.

    Earlier today in the trial of Ross Ulbricht, accused of running Silk Road under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, a DHS agent said under cross-examination that Karpeles had been a prime suspect in the investigation before attention fell on Ulbricht. Lawyers for the defense implied, if not outright argued, that Karpeles was the real Dread Pirate Roberts and had wanted to artificially inflate the value of Bitcoin.

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  • Russell Brandom

    Jan 15, 2015

    Russell Brandom

    The Silk Road trial just took a crazy twist implicating Mt. Gox

    What if the real mastermind behind the Silk Road drug market wasn't Ross Ulbricht, who's currently charged with running the site, but Mark Karpeles, the CEO of the ill-fated Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox? According to new developments in the trial today, it's not as crazy as it sounds. DHS agent Jared Deryegnan admitted under cross examination that the agency had suspected Karpeles of running the site and had prepared an affidavit to search Karpeles' email as part of the Silk Road investigation. One of Karpeles' companies had registered "Silkroadmarket.org," leading investigators to consider him as a suspect. Other evidence ultimately implicated Ulbricht, convincing even Deryegnan, but for a long time, the investigation saw Karpeles as a prime suspect.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Nov 7, 2014

    Adi Robertson

    International crackdown on online drug markets leads to 17 arrests, multiple shutdowns

    The international law enforcement push that led to the arrest of alleged Silk Road 2 operator Blake Benthall has also shut down several other online drug and illegal goods marketplaces and made over a dozen arrests. This morning, Europol revealed the extent of Operation Onymous, a mission carried out with the help of Eurojust, the FBI, the US Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies. According to a statement, 17 sellers and site admins were arrested, and around 410 hidden services ("darknet" servers that are accessible only through a browser using privacy software Tor) were shut down. The operation seized $1 million in bitcoins, the preferred currency of darknet markets, along with around $225,000 (€180,000) in "cash, drugs, gold, and silver."

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  • Adi Robertson

    Nov 6, 2014

    Adi Robertson

    FBI and Homeland Security shut down Silk Road 2, arrest alleged operator

    Silk Road 2, a replacement for the notorious online drug bazaar that went dark in October of 2013, has been seized in a joint action involving the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and European law enforcement. The hidden site and its forums now display only the splash page below, and an FBI spokesperson confirmed with The Verge that the domain had in fact been shut down. In a public statement, the FBI and Homeland Security said that they had also arrested suspected operator Blake Benthall ("Defcon") in California on Wednesday.

    26-year-old Benthall had allegedly "controlled and overseen all aspects of Silk Road 2.0" since December 2013, one month after the site launched. From December to February, according to Business Insider, he also worked for private spaceflight company SpaceX. In its complaint, the FBI says that he was found in part because he had supplied his own email address ("blake@benthall.net") for a Silk Road 2.0 server, and had contacted the server's service provider or accessed invoices without anonymizing software. According to various records, he received a steady Bitcoin income as well, at one point putting down $70,000 in bitcoin as a down payment for a Tesla Model S. He will appear today in federal court, charged with one count of conspiring to commit narcotics trafficking, one count of conspiring to commit computer hacking, one count of conspiring to traffic in fraudulent identification documents, and one count of money laundering conspiracy.

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  • Jacob Kastrenakes

    Jun 13, 2014

    Jacob Kastrenakes

    US government selling nearly $18 million in bitcoin seized from Silk Road

    Looking to buy some Bitcoin? The US government has plenty to sell. It's put up for auction the more than 29,000 bitcoins that it seized from the underground drug sales site Silk Road earlier this year, all of which are currently valued at close to $18 million. The auction will occur and close later this month, and bidders won't be required to purchase the entire, expensive chunk. Instead, it'll be broken up into 10 chunks, most of which are worth about $1.8 million, and interested parties can bid on as many chunks as they want.

    Notably, these bitcoins do not include those taken from Silk Road's alleged leader, Ross Ulbricht, who was arrested late last year and charged with narcotics trafficking conspiracy, computer hacking conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy. Ulbricht's trial is scheduled to begin in November, and he's being held without bail until then. In February, he pleaded not guilty on all counts. The US Marshals Service, which is overseeing the forfeiture of Silk Road's illegally acquired bitcoins, also notes that it will not sell to Ulbricht or anyone working with him or Silk Road.

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  • Silk Road may have prevented drug violence, study says

    Shutterstock

    Silk Road, the now-shuttered underground website where people could buy and sell illegal goods, was often referred to as the "eBay for drugs," implying that end users were the ones buying the drugs in small amounts.

    But Silk Road also facilitated dealer-to-dealer transactions, according to an unpublished but thorough study by two researchers at the University of Manchester and University of Lausanne. The volume of these dealer-level sales may have been large enough to reduce drug violence on the street and raise the quality of products.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Apr 1, 2014

    Adi Robertson

    Alleged Silk Road owner says he can't be guilty of money laundering if bitcoin isn't money

    Ross Ulbricht, who stands accused of running the Silk Road black market under the name "Dread Pirate Roberts," says that new federal bitcoin laws make the charges against him invalid. In a filing over the weekend, Ulbricht's lawyers defended him against charges of hacking, narcotics trafficking, operating a criminal conspiracy, and money laundering. The first three charges, his lawyers argue, are "unconstitutionally broad" and can't be applied to the normal operation of a website, even one whose business is illegal goods. And the last charge, they say, makes no sense if there isn't actual money involved — a possibility implied by a recent IRS decision.

    Ulbricht's defense against the first three charges largely amounts to an abdication of responsibility over what users did on the site: any actual drug trafficking would have been done by users of Silk Road, not the site's operator. Using the comparison of a landlord whose tenants operate a crack den, or a search engine that allows users to find illegal content, they argue that only civil penalties should apply, not the criminal ones federal prosecutors are seeking. "At worst, Mr. Ulbricht allegedly acted as a conduit or facilitator for those engaging in illegal activity," not as a drug "kingpin." And a hacking conspiracy charge, they say, is based only on the sale of malicious software through the site, not anything Ulbricht himself did.

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  • Alleged Silk Road owner pleads not guilty to all charges

    ross ulbricht small facebook
    ross ulbricht small facebook

    Ross Ulbricht, the 29-year-old man accused of operating the digital underground drug marketplace Silk Road, has pleaded not guilty on all charges despite the fact that prosecutors say they have eight to 10 terabytes worth of evidence, reports Forbes.

    Ulbricht faces more than 20 years in prison on allegations that he engaged in narcotics trafficking conspiracy, computer hacking conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy related to activities on Silk Road. More than $1.2 billion worth of commerce was conducted on the site exclusively in the virtual currency Bitcoin.

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  • Russell Brandom

    Jan 20, 2014

    Russell Brandom

    Inside the government's case against Silk Road

    ross ulbricht woods google plus
    ross ulbricht woods google plus

    This weekend, The New York Times took a long look at the federal case against Ross Ulbricht, alleged organizer of the online drug market Silk Road. The Times takes a particularly close look at how the government tracked down the precise location of the Silk Road's overseas server, which Ulbricht's defense team alleges may have involved NSA tracking. The piece also takes a new look at the moment Ulbricht was apprehended by the agents, which was more intricate than many realize. Agents took particular care to arrest Ulbricht without allowing him to close his laptop, which would have initiated encryption protocols and blocked much of the evidence law enforcement is now using to make its case.

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  • Russell Brandom

    Jan 16, 2014

    Russell Brandom

    US Attorney seizes $28 million in Bitcoin from the Silk Road server

    Silk Road laptop
    Silk Road laptop

    Today, federal attorneys announced the forfeiture of 29,655 bitcoins from the Silk Road server, adding up to over $28 million at current exchange rates. The forfeiture is part of a larger audit of the contents of the Silk Road servers, which had been seized in connection with an ongoing civil forfeiture action against the site — but before this announcement, the sheer volume of the site's wealth was still unclear.

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  • Alleged Silk Road kingpin Ross Ulbricht arrives in New York

    ross ulbricht woods google plus
    ross ulbricht woods google plus

    Ross Ulbricht, the man charged with running Silk Road, an underground website where people bought and sold illegal drugs, appeared in a New York court today after being arrested in San Francisco more than a month ago.

    Ulbricht has not seen his parents yet, Dratel says, but is "in good enough spirits for someone who has been in custody for a month."

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  • Chris Welch

    Nov 6, 2013

    Chris Welch

    Silk Road 2.0 launches with goal of resurrecting web's most popular drug marketplace

    shutterstock drugs
    shutterstock drugs

    The Silk Road is back. A relaunched version of the online drug marketplace has gone live today, joining existing alternatives that have seen a surge in popularity after authorities shut down the original Silk Road and busted its alleged mastermind. Silk Road 2.0 again tries to conceal the identity of both buyers and sellers by hiding itself behind the anonymizing network Tor, and Bitcoin remains the site's preferred currency. The site's administrator has even taken on the moniker of Dread Pirate Roberts, the same pseudonym that authorities believe was used by Ross Ulbricht before his capture.

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  • Jacob Kastrenakes

    Oct 25, 2013

    Jacob Kastrenakes

    FBI reportedly seizes $28.5 million in bitcoin from Silk Road mastermind

    FBI2
    FBI2

    The FBI has seized $28.5 million worth of bitcoins from the alleged mastermind behind the online drug market Silk Road, according to a report from Forbes. An unnamed FBI official reportedly tells Forbes that the agency seized a collection of 144,000 bitcoins that belonged to Ross Ulbricht, who earlier this month was arrested and charged with being the owner of Silk Road. This is reportedly the largest seizure of bitcoin — the semi-anonymous digital currency — ever made, and is said to have been completed earlier today.

    Other stashes of bitcoin related to Silk Road may still remain, however. Forbes reports that a separate collection of 111,000 bitcoins — or about $22 million — has been identified as potentially belonging to Ulbricht, but that the FBI appears not to have taken it just yet. That may be because the FBI hasn't gained the necessary key to unlock it, or simply because the account isn't under suspicion.

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  • Bryan Bishop

    Oct 16, 2013

    Bryan Bishop

    Silk Road hitman story to become a feature film from the author of 'Shutter Island'

    guns (shutterstock nomad_soul)
    guns (shutterstock nomad_soul)

    Earlier this month Ross Ulbricht, the owner of the online black market Silk Road, was charged with hiring a hitman to knock off one of his employees — and the story may be coming to a theater near you. Deadline reports that 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment have hired Dennis Lehane, the novelist behind Shutter Island, to adapt an Epic Magazine article by Joshua Davis about the story for the big screen. The twist is that the Epic Magazine article hasn't actually been published yet.

    Along with serving as the author of the source material, Davis will also be a producer on the project alongside Joshuah Bearman, his partner in the long-form venture Epic MagazineAnnounced this past August, Epic is aimed specifically at long-form journalism that's particularly well-suited to film adaptations. It's certainly an arena the duo have experience in; Davis' story on John McAfee is being turned into a film by Warner Bros., while one of Bearman's articles served as the foundation for Argo. While Lehane is best known for his novels — he wrote Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone — he also has experience in television, having written episodes of Boardwalk Empire and The Wire.

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  • Adrianne Jeffries

    Oct 16, 2013

    Adrianne Jeffries

    Accused Silk Road boss just hired a high-profile national security lawyer

    ross ulbricht facebook
    ross ulbricht facebook

    Ross Ulbricht, the man accused of running the underground drug website Silk Road, has finally hired an attorney to represent him on charges of narcotics trafficking conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and computer hacking conspiracy. Ulbricht was represented by a public defender at first, but friends and family have managed to find a hotshot lawyer to take the case: Joshua Dratel, a New York-based attorney who has built his career on cases related to national security.

    Dratel has defended more than 30 accused terrorists, including David Hicks, an Australian who was arrested in Afghanistan and detained at Guantanamo. He also represented an accountant convicted of working with al-Qaeda and one of the men charged with the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa. His background defending some of the most unsympathetic targets of government prosecution, along with his strong belief in personal freedom and opposition to the security state, made him a natural choice for Ulbricht's defense.

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  • Adrianne Jeffries

    Oct 14, 2013

    Adrianne Jeffries

    The LSD Avengers, Silk Road’s self-appointed drug inspectors, announce retirement

    lsd avengers
    lsd avengers

    Acid is a freaky drug; it can make you feel like you’re a kid again, or trap you in a real-life horror movie. So when you buy it off the internet, there’s understandably some trepidation: is this going to make me completely lose my mind forever?

    A group calling itself The LSD Avengers arose to answer that question for users of the Silk Road, the deep-web black market that sold drugs and other contraband until police took it down earlier this month. After a slew of scams on the site and reports of dubious acid, the Avengers began ordering from different vendors on the site, subjecting their wares to a chemical reagent test and a gas chromatography mass-spectrometry machine. If the drug was in fact LSD, the Avengers consumed it and posted Yelp-like reviews.

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  • Adrianne Jeffries

    Oct 14, 2013

    Adrianne Jeffries

    Lessons from Silk Road: don't host your virtual illegal drug bazaar in Iceland

    iceland sarah ackerman flickr
    iceland sarah ackerman flickr

    It's unclear how much information Iceland turned over, but the FBI claims two Silk Road servers were based there. Icelandic police say the site was actually hosted there. Since Iceland does not have a formal Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) with the US, it appears that the FBI negotiated a special one-time agreement in order to get the data.

    It still looks like the bulk of the information that broke open the case did not come from Iceland, however. The complaint says "an image of the Silk Road Web Server was made on or about July 23rd, 2013, and produced thereafter to the FBI" as a result of a request made to a foreign country under a formal MLAT.

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  • Dante D'Orazio

    Oct 12, 2013

    Dante D'Orazio

    Silk Road commemorated with special edition ecstasy pills

    TheHeineken Silk Road ecstasy pills
    TheHeineken Silk Road ecstasy pills

    A drug dealer is keeping the memory of digital black market Silk Road alive with specially-printed ecstasy pills. "To pay our respect to DPR and to forever remember the legacy that was Silk Road we have made a small batch of special units," reads a message on the online storefront for TheHeineken, which sells an array of narcotics. "DPR" refers to Dread Pirate Roberts, the man behind Silk Road. Last week the FBI arrested Ross Ulbricht — who the agency alleges is Dread Pirate Roberts — and shut down the marketplace. Ulbricht has denied all charges.

    Since the shutdown a number of other sites have moved in to fill the gap left by the Silk Road, including Sheep Marketplace, where the specially-marked pills are being sold. The tablets are emblazoned with Silk Road's camel logo on one side and the initials "SR" on the other, and the seller notes that "We will offer this limited batch only in small quantitys for a limited time" [sic]. It seems drug dealers know the allure of limited editions just as well as video game publishers; just don't expect a behind-the-scenes DVD with your purchase.

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  • Casey Newton

    Oct 9, 2013

    Casey Newton

    Alleged Silk Road mastermind will sit in jail while he awaits transfer to New York

    Silk Road laptop
    Silk Road laptop

    Ross William Ulbricht, alleged founder of underground marketplace Silk Road, agreed to be transferred to New York to face the charges against him at a hearing today in San Francisco. In a hearing that lasted less than five minutes, Ulbricht's public defender said Ulbricht would not protest his detention as he awaits his transfer to New York. He retains the right to pursue bail after he arrives in New York.

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  • Police have started busting alleged top Silk Road drug dealers

    shutterstock drugs
    shutterstock drugs

    After seizing the digital black market Silk Road and arresting its alleged owner, the police are now going after the users of the site. Police have arrested a man in Washington alleged to be one of the top 1 percent of drug sellers as well as four users in the UK with more arrests to come, according to news reports. Two Swedish men were also reportedly arrested for selling marijuana on Silk Road.

    It's unclear to what degree the arrests are related to the takedown of Silk Road, but the timing is probably not a coincidence. These are the first known arrests of Silk Road users in these countries. The overall number of Silk Road busts is relatively low, considering the site did more than $1.2 billion in sales according to the FBI.

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