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Dark Net Weapons Bust Leads To 17 Arrests and a $80,000 Bitcoin Seizure

Last Updated March 4, 2021 4:44 PM
Justin OConnell
Last Updated March 4, 2021 4:44 PM

A recent series of busts has shaken the world of darknet weapons commerce. A six-month joint investigation between law enforcement in Australia and the United States, which involved law enforcement going undercover as weapons dealers,  has resulted in 17 arrests internationally.

In September 2014, the US Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) identified  a 33-year-old US-based dark net seller of weapons to a “worldwide client base,” according to a press release from the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

The arrest came as the result of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) providing “relevant information” to HSI, “[commencing] a covert operation using the online alias account” in order to identify users trying to buy illegal weapons.

Security researcher Gwern Branwen has been following the investigation since April and believes he knows the user account of the arrested weapons seller that was used by HSI. His evidence was posted on DarknetMarkets Subreddit.

In April, the US Department of Justice arrested US-based Justin Moreira, 21, and charged him with the purchase of a Walther PPK/S .380 caliber pistol and a silencer from a federal undercover agent sometime after January 2015 for about $2,500 in bitcoin, according to a DoJ press release.

According to the criminal complaint, Moreira used the account “jd497” to purchase the weapon.

The account was on dark net marketplace Agora, where the username “weaponsguy,” according to Branwen, was used by law enforcement. The guns, at least according to the UPS tracking number, were shipped from Montana.

HSI agents used the account to complete six sales made to addresses in Australia. 15 search warrants were received through February and March, leading to the arrest of four suspects.

The all-male suspects include a 25-year-old from Liverpool, New South Wales; a 26-year-old from Gladstone, Queensland; and a 24-year-old and 25-year-old from the Australian Capital Territories, all of whom will appear in court June 25.

34 charges have been brought against the suspects, covering many offenses, not all weapons-related.

“Four illegal firearms, ammunition, two clandestine laboratories, precursor chemicals, methamphetamines, pseudoephedrine, steroids, computer equipment and mobile telephones were seized,” according to AFP.

“On a global level, the operation led to 17 arrests across the United Kingdom, Europe, and North America. These arrests resulted in the further seizures of firearms, ballistic armor, illicit drugs, and  $80,000 in bitcoins,” a Customs statement said.

An agent close to the investigation clarified to the Australian authorities commitment  that they will strike down on darknet weapons sales.

“HSI will maintain its unrelenting commitment to secure land borders as well as virtual borders from individuals seeking to prosper from the sale and/or purchase of firearms, drugs, and other illicit items with little regard for national security,” special agent in charge of HSI Newark Kevin Kelly said.

“Anyone who mistakenly thinks that they can get away with these types of crimes by hiding in the endless depths of the internet must know that HSI will seek them out and bring them to justice.”

According to authorities, this investigation highlights the success law enforcement can have when investigating dark net based illicit activity.

“Despite this great result, Customs and Border Protection will continue to actively monitor and target illicit transnational online trade, and this operation highlights the fact that our efforts are supported by national and international law enforcement partners,” CBPS National Director Investigations, Assistant Commissioner Lancaster said.

“People using these sites should not be fooled by claims of online anonymity; each transaction builds up a global web of intelligence which international partners are using to target you.”