In 2016, a law enforcement agent with the Central California Darknet Strike Force Investigated two Alphabay vendors: Area51 and DarkApollo. The case provided a look at the way some vendors handled customer information, as well as their own. After what seemed like an incredibly short amount of time for a case against a darknet vendor, Abudullah Almashwali, pleaded guilty to distribution of heroin and cocaine.
Almashwali, one of two vendors arrested in the Central California Darknet Strike Force operation, pleaded guilty on Friday, April 14, 2017. His partner and co-defendant, Chaudhry Ahmad Farooq, pleaded guilty to conspiring to traffic heroin in January 2017. Farooq admitted that he sold 636.5 grams of heroin on Alphabay. He made $145,807 in Bitcoin during his run as a darknet vendor.
A law enforcement agent noticed that the vendor accounts Area 51 and DarkApollo sold the same drugs, shipped from the same location, and spoke the same way. He found that users on various, unnamed forums received packages from Brooklyn, New York. (The subreddit is one option; in another recent case, one man’s Reddit posts gave him away. Alphabay forums too, etc.)
The officer explained—in heavily redacted documents—that he found one of the vendor’s email addresses attached to the PGP key. The email address consisted of a username at a Gmail address. He used “Adashc31.” Officers searched social media for variations of the username found both a Twitter account and an Instagram account linked to the username. Those linked to Farooq in Brooklyn. Undercover officers conducted controlled buys and confirmed Farooq operated one, if not both, Alphabay accounts.
The controlled buys basically sealed the deal for the dynamic duo. Officers subpoenaed Facebook and grabbed Farooq’s information. Specifically a phone number and a picture with Almashwali. One of the packages carried a partial print that linked back to Almashwali. Officers used the tracking information as confirmatory evidence and brought United States Postal Inspection Service agents in for the next phase.
As with most cases wherein the USPIS find themselves involved, they looked up the identity of the stamp buyer for the undercover packages. The buyer used a credit card with Almashwali’s name on it. After a traffic stop, USPS employees positively identified him as the buyer of the stamps. A judge issued a search warrant and an arrest warrant and police officers brought them both in on the same day.
“U.S. District Judge Dale A. Drozd is scheduled to sentence Almashwali on July 24, 2017, at 1:30 p.m. and Farooq on May 15, 2017,” the press release said “Almashwali and Farooq face a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.” Both men sold for a decent amount of time and much of the /r/darknetmarkets community knew of both accounts. No matter how well a vendor covered his or her tracks, the connection of a real life identity and an Alphabay one rarely lead to a good outcome.