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Bitcoin Crime Government The Almighty Buck

How a Young IRS Agent Identified the Man Behind Silk Road (nytimes.com) 163

circletimessquare writes: Dread Pirate Roberts, who ran Silk Road, was identified as Ross Ulbricht by one agent googling, off work hours, in just two weekends in 2013. Many agents had been working on the case for a year or more, and since agent Gary Alford was new to the case, not FBI, and not technologically sophisticated, no one took him seriously for months. He escalated the discovery and became such a pest about it, one agent told him to drop it. From the New York Times article: "In these technical investigations, people think they are too good to do the stupid old-school stuff. But I'm like, 'Well, that stuff still works.'" Mr. Alford's preferred tool was Google. He used the advanced search option to look for material posted within specific date ranges. That brought him, during the last weekend of May 2013, to a chat room posting made just before Silk Road had gone online, in early 2011, by someone with the screen name "altoid." "Has anyone seen Silk Road yet?" altoid asked. "It's kind of like an anonymous Amazon.com." The early date of the posting suggested that altoid might have inside knowledge about Silk Road. During the first weekend of June 2013, Mr. Alford went through everything altoid had written, the online equivalent of sifting through trash cans near the scene of a crime. Mr. Alford eventually turned up a message that altoid had apparently deleted — but that had been preserved in the response of another user. In that post, altoid asked for some programming help and gave his email address: rossulbricht@gmail.com.
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How a Young IRS Agent Identified the Man Behind Silk Road

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  • by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Sunday December 27, 2015 @09:51AM (#51189869)

    People rarely realize how much stuff they put on the internet about themselves, willingly or not. Since the internet never forgets, it's usually quite easy to dig up a lot of information about almost everybody. All it takes is a lot of time and knowing how to look.

    Do the exercize: try to unearth bits of information about yourself: it's scary how much you can find out (or rediscover) about yourself in a mere couple hours...

    What surprises me here is that government agencies who should know better dismiss plain old search engine stalking as a valid method for finding out what someone is up to, or has done.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Dr. Evil ( 3501 )

      "What surprises me here is that government agencies who should know better dismiss plain old search engine stalking as a valid method for finding out what someone is up to, or has done."

      The NYT is trying to tell a story. There might be a nugget of truth, but I'm doubtful that the government agencies are so dismissive of old tech.

      We work in an industry where we can raise red flags, calling meetings, send urgent emails, harass people in chat and in hallways and not have our ideas heard. I'm sure the IRS

    • People rarely realize how much stuff they put on the internet about themselves, willingly or not. Since the internet never forgets, it's usually quite easy to dig up a lot of information about almost everybody. All it takes is a lot of time and knowing how to look.

      If anyone ever figures out who that "Anonymous Coward" is, his life is going to be over!!

    • I googled my name and found 3 web sites that provide my name, address, and telephone number. One even had a map on how to get to my house. So much for having unlisted numbers. These sites refused to take down my information. In fact one site even told me I have to join their site for $19.95 a month in order to have control of what information they post about me even though I didn't give them my information and did not authorize them to publically publish my name, address, and phone number.
  • Old school? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CCarrot ( 1562079 ) on Sunday December 27, 2015 @10:00AM (#51189905)

    "In these technical investigations, people think they are too good to do the stupid old-school stuff. But I'm like, 'Well, that stuff still works.'" Mr. Alford's preferred tool was Google.

    "Old-school": I do not think that word means what you think it means...either that, or I'm ancient school *sigh*

  • Clearly (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Sunday December 27, 2015 @10:12AM (#51189941) Journal
    It is probably accurate to assume the seasoned agents were using illegal wiretapping colllection pots and posing as customers on Silk Road.

    This story indicates the surveillance state, and much of its collection efforts, are even less necessary as long as the detectives are willing to put in the work.

    • This story *actually* indicates that plain old investigation enough to catch criminals who depend on the magic properties of bitcoin, since doesn't have any.

      You don't need crazy illegal wiretaps when you are looking for dumb criminals.

      • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

        You missed what this story really indicates, there is more of the Slashdot, first post thing going on, then anything else. User the internet long term memory to trace down ideas to the original generator of those ideas, the first poster who sets the idea off. Those people who are least likely to make childish mistakes but still get caught up in being first, someone always has to be first, so it is all about the time track of new ideas, not where they have spread to but where they have originated. A story m

    • by Tom ( 822 )

      This exactly.

      Like many middle managers, people in the police force are a victim to the technology panacea problem. Convincing salesmen tell them that this or that toy will solve all their problems and they believe it.

      But the fact of the matter is, tools that really reduce your work by a large amount are invented once in a lifetime. You know, the wheel. The steam engine. That kind of stuff. The new product from Cool Tech Inc. is almost certainly not among them, no matter what they promise. It might be cool a

    • By posing as customers the FBI could put lots of people in Jail. But Alford insisting that they arrest Ulbrict they just got one head. Not good for the KPIs. Not good at all.

    • This story indicates the surveillance state, and much of its collection efforts, are even less necessary as long as the detectives are willing to put in the work.

      No, this story indicates that Google is the surveillance state. [craphound.com]

    • That's why they would rather you not know. The real purpose of the surveillance state isn't to catch terrorists as the Department of Homeland Security and your politicians claim it is for. It is a "tool" that they can use to go on fishing expeditions to find people who are breaking the law, not just terrorists. Prior to the Patriot Act a lot of the things in the Patriot Act were attached to other bills to fight the "war on drugs". After 9/11 they saw a great opportunity to pass laws that normally wouldn't p
  • Young IRS Agent (Score:1, Insightful)

    What, are we supposed to see this guy as some sort of hero or something? Forget it..

    • What, are we supposed to see this guy as some sort of hero or something? Forget it..

      He found a dangerous criminal without doing anything even borderline illegal, so we should all very much appreciate what he was doing. If you think that he didn't get himself into the line of fire but acted from the safety of his desk, well, we don't want heroes, we want results.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        You fragile Americans don't even know what's a real violent criminal (you know, the likes of those your drug war created on the south side of the river). If some one have done something productive against the drug war was DPR and the silk road.

      • "Dangerous criminal"? I hope you're kidding...

        • by KGIII ( 973947 )

          Eh? Well, he may have enabled adults to think for themselves and allow consenting people to purchase products that let them feel happy for a time. It might have encouraged individual thought or action. I'd say that's pretty dangerous! We can't have people taking control of their own bodies and minds. Think of the children!

    • Yeah, this was what I was going to post on here.
      Now where am I supposed to find lsd? I am not a big fan of crack or heroin. You know, the stuff I can find within 15 minutes of walking outside.

  • ... how many FBI investigations?

    It's possible that the FBI already knew who Ulbricht was. Or just didn't care, preferring to pursue the criminal groups using Silk Road rather than bringing the system down. But the IRS philosophy is to chase nickels in front of a steam roller. To them, the crime is the money. Not the drugs, weapons and other contraband being exchanged.

    This is why many many law enforcement officials don't like sharing information with the IRS. Tip a terrorist off that he's being watched be

    • by gtall ( 79522 )

      And if the IRS did concentrate on the drugs, weapons, and contraband, you'd be whining about them overstepping their bounds. They are interested in financials because they are the IRS. What about this confuses you?

      • by PPH ( 736903 )

        And if the IRS did concentrate on the drugs, weapons, and contraband,

        Then they wouldn't be the IRS. They'd be a federal law enforcement agency that could prioritize their investigations to go after serious crimes. And they wouldn't be little fiefdoms, stepping on each other's toes with one group going after drugs, another after weapons, money, terrorism, etc.

      • As long as you report that drug, illegal weapon, and contraband income on your 1040 form., the IRS is fine with it. Actually, you can probably get by with reporting only some of it, if they can't prove how much income you got from illegal activities.

  • It took me 2 hours to source a supply of Testosterone in Australia just using Google. Correlating and using limits will find you just about anything. Not everything is on Google, of course. In fact, in recent years I'm finding Google has less and less interesting information and content as web sites shut it out. The other search engines aren't any better. But it does lead you to doors like forums.
    • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
      There's too much horse racing in OZ to not find testosterone easily. Though calling all the vets in the phonebook asking who's willing to deal would probably work out poorly in the end.
  • "...altoid asked for some programming help and gave his email address: rossulbricht@gmail.com."

    Whoopsie.

    • Re:Oops (Score:5, Interesting)

      by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Sunday December 27, 2015 @01:49PM (#51190663)

      Which does not sound credible to me. On almost all sites where you ask this type of questions, you ask anonymously or with an account, but giving a plain-text email will both not get you responses to it and will get you a lot of spam to it instead.

      My take: Parallel construction (i.e. law enforcement criminally lying under oath) and some way to keep Ulbricht quiet about it. Possibly done to hide criminal and possibly unconstitutional snooping practices.

      • My take: Parallel construction (i.e. law enforcement criminally lying under oath) and some way to keep Ulbricht quiet about it. Possibly done to hide criminal and possibly unconstitutional snooping practices.

        Yes, it's certainly possible that's what happened, but sometimes the answer is just that people are careless, stupid, lazy, or sloppy. It's hard to be perfect, but it only takes one tiny mistake to fuck it all up....and I can tell you from personal experience that fucking up is easy to do. lol

        But who knows- it could easily be a combination of the two or just plain illegal activity by the cops. We'll probably never know for sure.

        • Yes, it's certainly possible that's what happened,

          It's also not possible, which is why we have courts. Rather than simply guessing, we get each side to present actual, verifiable evidence rather than pure speculation...

          • It's also not possible, which is why we have courts. Rather than simply guessing, we get each side to present actual, verifiable evidence rather than pure speculation...

            Ain't nobody got time fo' dat shit!

      • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
        I remember USENET from the '90s. I started on it from college. Every post tagged with my real, traceable, and valid email. There was no anonymity. Some persisted with that, even in less public forums. He was asking for programming help, not necessarily for anything nefarious. At that point, he may not have even realized he was going to do something nefarious with it.

        My take: Parallel construction

        There's little the FBI couldn't do without a warrant, so parallel construction wouldn't be necessary. The best theory I saw someone else

        • There's little the FBI couldn't do without a warrant, so parallel construction wouldn't be necessary.

          You can't say that in here. Everything the cops do is evil and subversive and they all hate you and want to eat your babies.
          Whatever the question is, parallel construction is the answer....

        • Also, the guy wasn't an FBI agent. I can break into your home and find the evidence of that little "ring" you have going on, turn it over to the police, and it's perfectly admissible. I can be prosecuted for burglary no matter what happens to you.

          • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
            An IRS Special Agent has the exact same powers as an FBI Special Agent (special agent, being the standard agent). The IRS runs in guns drawn and all that like an FBI raid when they take down someone. There was a guy at work that had filed 10 years worth of 10+ tax returns (all fraudulent) and the IRS came in like stormtroopers to take him away for hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax fraud. An IRS special agent can do anything an FBI special agent can.

            But all that's irrelevant. The conspiracy theory
            • And one thing neither an FBI nor IRS special agent can do is enter a private home without a warrant. Doing so would screw up any case they had. I, on the other hand, could break into the guy's house and look at his financial records, and that evidence is admissible in court. I've committed breaking and entering or burglary, of course. If I do so under any official auspices, such as a promise not to prosecute me, it counts as a government action.

      • Which does not sound credible to me.

        My take: Parallel construction (i.e. law enforcement criminally lying under oath)

        How does this get modded up? Just because you thought something up doesn't make it so. Luckily for us our legal system requires a little bit more evidence than what you happen to think on the day.

  • How the tax collection agency goes after this guy and not the FBI. Shows the real priorities of Uncle Sam.

    • How the tax collection agency goes after this guy and not the FBI.

      You know that the tax collector's job is to collect tax right? How do you think they should do that, just sit at home and hope everyone pays up?

      Shows the real priorities of Uncle Sam.

      Er, it is widely understood that the government needs money to function, and it collects that money via tax.
      Take off the tin foil hat. This guy was breaking the law, made a rookie error and got caught by the people whose job it is to catch crooks. He deserves what he gets.

  • The silly stuff of pride and self preservation means you can't do someone's job for them.
    You show that they (and possible the massive task force behind them are "useless").

    It is a stupid system. The whistle blowers should get a nice reward for saving further wasted money. And yes it is possible those in charge get a black mark for not following whatever lead it was. Overall from the top, the system should adjust and continue to reward these outside sources of information as good competition against an insid

  • Because he's black (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bigsexyjoe ( 581721 ) on Sunday December 27, 2015 @04:20PM (#51191333)

    Gary L. Alford is black. That probably contributed to them not believing him.

    • one word: conspiratard

      to see dark plots everywhere when the simple and obvious explanation doesn't have enough dank memes

    • More words you probably like:
      Bitcoin
      3D Printing
      Drones
      The year of Linux on the Desktop
      Beowulf Cluster

      Just because "Parallel Construction" in the latest Slashdot buzzword, doesn't mean you have to find any excuse to use it...
  • You better watch out for the IRS! It seems they are able to catch people who have found ways to evade the FBI and other law enforcement authorities. Remember that if you are getting a refund on your taxes, don't file a tax form to claim this refund or the government will find out where you live.

The computer can't tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what's missing is the eyebrows. - Frank Zappa

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