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Feds shine light on crime on 'dark web'

Posted at 6:48 AM, Feb 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-27 23:11:43-05

MILWAUKEE -- It may have been a drug bust on the streets of Cleveland, but the FBI raid made as part of "Operation Disarray" last March had tentacles reaching around the world.

Operation Disarray hit targets in all 50 states linked illegal drug sales on a part of the internet called the dark web. It's a place where criminals work to stay a step ahead of law enforcement.

Special Agent Lee Chartier says the FBI is getting better at keeping up.

"It's a push-pull. Every time we advance, they advance. It's definitely a back and forth."

Chartier works on cybercrime in the bureau's Milwaukee office, but has the same global reach. He's fighting to keep up with crime on the cutting edge -- on "the dark web."

"It's evolving so fast every hour every day," he said.

The targets of Operation Disarray were dark web drug dealers, but the internet's back alley is home to so much more. You just need to know where to look.

Because there is no google on the dark web, finding anything requires help from someone who's been there before.

This is why the I-TEAM turned to internet security consultant Alex Holden for a look around.

"The only challenge becomes where to go once you get on the dark web. There are no easy maps," said Holden.

Within minutes, Holden showed us sites that traffic in stolen and forged documents used to steal identities. Batches of skimmed credit card numbers for sale on a site called "Trump Dumps."

There's a site dealing "fishscale" -- street talk for high-quality cocaine, and many guns for sale as well.

"Some sites on the dark web advertise any type of weapons, including assault weapons, to be shipped to your doorsteps," Holden said.

The dark web is central to the story of Jeremy Ryan. He's the Madison activist charged with terrorism last October for trying to buy radioactive material online.

Court documents say Ryan was in search of polonium to ingest and commit suicide. He sought the material on the dark web "so he can kill himself and make it look like the government did it," his attorney wrote in one court filing.

Instead of an arms dealer, Ryan was dealing with an undercover federal agent. Alex Holden thinks the only reason Ryan found someone willing to sell polonium was because the seller was FBI.

"Probably finding radioactive materials is a very far stretch for reality here," Holden said.

Chartier hopes the possibility of talking to an undercover agent gives people pause before committing a crime on the dark web.

"That's kind of the point. You never know, right? Assume what you're gonna assume, but you never know."

Not to mention the criminals who would rather rip you off than keep their promises. Knowing who's who in a place with no faces and no names is almost impossible.

"To find the most notorious hackers, the most notorious criminals, you have to go and find the right places. You need to have the right skills to get to the right crowd," Holden said.

If you don't have those skills you could wind up in handcuffs -- or worse. You could wind up a victim of a crime yourself.

"You're going into the largest concentration of criminals on the internet," Chartier said.

"I kind of look at it like this: you're jumping into a shark tank with a piece of meat around your neck."