An Audience with an Online Drug Dealer
The following article first appeared on Substance.com:
I’m in a New Jersey diner with “Allan,” who is one of a pioneering breed of drug dealers. Allan doesn’t meet his clients in shady doorways or deliver to their apartments. In fact, he’s never met any of the hundreds of people he sells heroin and cocaine to. Allan is an online drug dealer—or “vendor,” to use the parlance. On several black-market sites he goes by the gleeful moniker “Scarface360.” Despite the pseudonym and a propensity to pepper his conversation with the N-word, Allan turns out to be a 20-something white guy with nary a scar anywhere—except on his needle-tracked arms.
The first time many people heard of the so-called “Deep Web”—the vast area of the Internet consisting of sites that cannot be accessed via standard search engines—was when Silk Road, history’s most notorious online bazaar, was busted last October. The libertarian cyber-Godfather who ran it—“Dread Pirate Roberts“—was apparently revealed to be a 29-year-old University of Texas graduate named Ross William Ulbricht. Ulbricht pleaded not guilty to several charges last month and is due to stand trial in November.
The media moved on and a casual observer might have assumed that the Feds had dealt a crushing blow to online drug dealing.
Except, of course, the truth was a little more complicated than that.
For a start, the arrest of Ulbricht and the seizure of Silk Road seems to have been mostly down to the alleged mastermind’s mistakes, with a side order of good fortune for the Feds. As many have observed, if Dread Pirate Roberts hadn’t made some basic security errors and allegedly tried to take out a blackmailing business associate with a hitman, he would probably still be in business today. The truth is, the Tor network—a service that uses encryption software to let users browse the web anonymously—poses a major challenge to law enforcement.
More important, when it came to online drug dealing, Silk Road was far from being the only game in town. It was certainly the biggest—with the best user interface, the most vendors and customers, and total revenue between February 2011 and July 2013 estimated as high as $1.2 billion. But there were rivals. Sites like The Marketplace and Black Market Reloaded exploded in popularity when Silk Road’s users were displaced. Soon, dozens more sites popped up to grab their slice of Silk Road’s vacated market share. Oh yes, and there was actually another Dread Pirate Roberts as well: Within weeks of Silk Road’s closure, Silk Road 2.0 was up and running.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the Feds brought down the original Silk Road that Scarface360/Allan even thought of getting into the online heroin and cocaine trade. It was seeing a news report about Ulbricht’s arrest for running “the Amazon of drugs” that actually sparked Allan’s personal transformation from scuffling junkie to successful online dope vendor.
But before he will tell me any of this, I have to convince him to meet with me. It’s not easy.
After a week of tense emails on the Tor network, Allan finally agrees to meet me at the diner for an interview. He is understandably paranoid that this is some weirdly elaborate police sting. It’s not until he sees my decade-old but still-visible tracks (I’m a former heroin user) that he stops being guarded and monosyllabic and instead becomes almost comically enthusiastic to tell me about his business.
There are few things that Allan doesn’t have a strong opinion on. Case in point: the strengths of the 1986 Toyota Corolla as the ultimate vehicle to score drugs in. “It’s like, the pigs can’t see it, yeah? Like it’s magical or some shit. Fuckin’ weird man, but I never got popped driving a Corolla. I ended up selling my Volks and going back to the Corolla ‘cuz I was getting pulled so often. Ain’t been pulled over since I switched, no shit.”“It’s crazy money, and easy too,” he says. “I’m doin’ it for another six months, then I’m retiring. Hit and run.”
This is an issue because although Allan sells drugs for profit from the relative safety of websites, he still buys his supplies off the street. He makes three trips a week to score.
I ask why he doesn’t buy in bulk, so he doesn’t need to do it as often. He seems perplexed. Surely, I suggest, if he did that, someone would be willing to deliver? Allan gives me a look as if to say, Where’s the fun in that?
I can relate. In the old days I think I was almost as addicted to the ritual of scoring as I was to the junk itself.
“You gotta be careful, though,” Allan says. “Crossing back into Bergen County these small-town pigs be, like, lurking an’ shit. They’re just waiting to pounce for any old shit, so you gotta be riding clean when you cross into the sticks.”
Paterson, New Jersey is a municipality that has earned a reputation in the last decade as a go-to city for some of the cheapest and best-quality heroin the East Coast has to offer. That’s why in just three short months of being active in a handful of black-market sites, The Artist Formally Known As Allan has made a killing. Paterson junk has a reputation. All it took was an entrepreneurial middleman: Thanks to Allan and a handful of others, Paterson heroin is now keeping junkies nodding as far afield as San Diego and Alaska.
Paterson is the kind of place that reeks of dope. Bustling pawnshops standing shoulder-to-shoulder with storefront churches and steel-shuttered liquor stores. Stop too long at the wrong red light and squeegee men and blank-eyed crackheads hawking shriveled roses descend upon your vehicle, grimy palms outstretched.
“I love Paterson,” says Allan wistfully. “If you’re smart, there’s money to be made here, you know?”
As Allan tells it, he was scraping by when he chanced upon that news report about Dread Pirate Roberts and was intrigued. Allan was computer literate enough—he says, vaguely, that he has some previous programming experience—not to be intimidated by the technical requirements of accessing this hidden portion of the web. He did a little digging and had soon submerged himself in the semi-secret world of Tor networking, online black markets and the Bitcoin exchange.
The first thing that struck him was the prices. “It was crazy! Three, four times what I pay on the street. So I decide to make a buy, you know? Check it out. So I buy five bags of dope for like 70 bucks. Now this is like way more than I pay on the street, but it’s the novelty, you know? Four days later I get my package and you ain’t gonna believe what I see: the same Versace-brand dope I buy for six bucks a bag on the street!” (East Coast dealers “stamp” their bags to encourage brand loyalty.)
“Homeboy selling the shit online probably bought from the same corner I do! Plus the bags be like half the weight, like the nigga takes half out before he mails it out,” Allan continues. “And this nigga online, he’s got all these reviews: ‘Yo, this shit is fire, this nigga is a top-tier vendor,’ all that kinda shit. Well, shit…” Allan smiles, exposing a row of filmy yellow teeth. “That’s when the fuckin’ light bulb goes off, ya know?”
He started “vending” modestly, selling off an excess Adderall prescription: “I had a doc who’d write me for my ADD, you know? But speed ain’t my thing. But I had 30 of ‘em, the 15 mg extended release ones, so I figured I’d test the waters. Cost me 10 bucks to get the prescription filled, an’ I was able to sell those bitches for 10 a piece. Two hundred and ninety buck profit on bottle of Adderall. From then on, I was in business.”
Scarface360 is now a presence on a number of Deep Web markets.
“It was crazy,” he says of the effect of Silk Road’s closure. “Overnight you had like, four, five markets popping up: The Marketplace, Black Market Reloaded, Pandora, those fucking assholes at Sheep…”
Allan’s prices, by street standards, are extremely high. But by the inflated standards of the Deep Web, they’re competitive. Single bags go for $15. Five bags are $60, 10 bags are $110 and 20 retail for $180. He also sells by the brick—50 bags for $390. On the street he buys by the brick, paying $300.He bristles at the mere mention of that late scam-marketplace, which absconded with an estimated $100 million of its users’ monies. In the days of Silk Road the markets were relatively stable; since the bust, thereal pirates have moved in. Fly-by-night operations dominate the scene and nobody knows if their favorite marketplace will still be around in the morning. Sheep almost put Allan out of business for good: “Lost nearly six thou overnight. But you know I was able to make it back. I still had some product, and junkies always gonna need dope.”
Despite the markup, buyers seem to like him. “Another flawless transaction from my man S360! Order with confidence,” reports a satisfied customer on one marketplace. “If you want your transaction drama-free, go with S. Plus I got five extras and dope is fire, stamps are fat.”
Back at his apartment, Allan is prepped for another busy afternoon. On the third floor of a three-family home in a dull suburb of Bergen County, his place is small and messy: Piles of priority-mail envelopes are piled up in a corner, next to a machine that looks something like a printer. “Vacuum Sealer,” says Allan, in the tone of a man telling you about his new sports car.
He takes five of the small glassine envelopes of heroin and places them in a clear Ziploc-type baggie. He puts the open edge of the Ziploc into the machine, and with the press of a button the drugs are sealed tight.
“Stealth is real important,” he tells me. “You can’t just stick your shit in an envelope and hope for the best. Your customers expect more. And they’ll talk if you’re slacking.”
Indeed, the ability for users to review their dealers is an interesting development that has shifted the power dynamic between seller and consumer. In the world of online drug vending, the customer—not the dealer—really is king.
At the moment it’s still only a minority of drug users who are empowered in this way. The high prices and the perceived trickiness of dealing with Tor and Bitcoin mean that this market is still the preserve of tech-savvy pioneers–and even Silk Road’s former revenue is dwarfed by the $100 billion-plus that Americans spend on illegal drugs every year. But in an increasingly connected, educated world it seems certain that people like Allan are building the mainstream drug scene of tomorrow. As Tor and Bitcoin become increasingly demystified—ironically, high-profile busts like Silk Road speed this process by providing publicity—ever more users are bound to take the plunge into buying online.
“You can’t rip people off,” Allan repeats. “You can’t sell bunk product—word gets around. You gotta pay good money for a license to vend on these sites; only a dummy’d fuck it up by being unprofessional. You could make quick bread by ripping people off as a one-off…but why fuck up a good thing? The real money is in sticking around, getting a customer base.”
And Allan’s clients do come back. He says that 90% are repeat customers. The secret, he tells me, is fast shipping. “Look, there’s people online who got better dope than me. Straight-from-the-cartel kind of dope. But they charge more and take a while. My prices are good but my real strength is speed. I ship shit out fast, cuz. You order from me Monday, you got your shit on Wednesday. That’s the biggest deal for dope fiends. Nothin’ worse than a junkie be waiting for the postman, all sick and shit.”
Allan picks up a bag and looks at it dreamily. “Some of these motherfuckers bitch that my bags are light or whatever, but they come back cuz they know they can get their shit in a hurry from me.” He smiles. “I’m a dope-fiend, too. So I know how it is. It makes me happy, you know, knowing that I’m keeping all those fiends stoned and happy.”
I ask him how many stamps he sells a day.
“On a good day, 200,” he shrugs. “Always between 150 and 200.”
I whistle. So that’s $1,500 profit a day, minus the shipping cost?
Scarface360 smirks. “What am I, stoopid? I don’t pay for shipping. I charge for that.”
“How do you ship it all?”
“I got friends,” he says. “Pay ‘em a hundred a day to drop packages around the county. You can’t be a one-man operation. Demand’s too high.”
He talks me through his system, which involves dozens of Priority Mail packages being dropped off at drop box locations the length and breadth of the state of New York and New Jersey, with a carefully worked out roster to avoid over-using any particular location. It’s complex and surprisingly well thought-out for someone who seems as chaotic as this guy.
I ask him if he worries about getting busted.
“Fuck no,” he says emphatically. “This shit’s foolproof!”
What about Dread Pirate Roberts?
Allan laughs. “That fucking dummy screwed himself. You know his problem? He was a fucking political asshole, all that libertarian bullshit. If he’d have been a straight-up dope dealer, Silk Road would still be up and running. That’s why we got all these fucking markets popping up now, everybody fighting for the same customers, places going down…all because of that longhair hiring a fucking hit man instead of solving his problems like a fucking man.”
I leave Allan carefully dividing up bags of heroin prior to shipping. It’s hard to say how much of what he tells me—in terms of how foolproof his method is, how likely he is to stick to his six-month plan, or how much he sells per day—is merely bluster. But there’s little doubt that selling dope online is keeping Allan very busy indeed.
Just before I go, I ask him if he ever wonders about the people he’s selling to.
“How d’you mean?”
Like if they’re male, female, old, young? New users, old-school? Does he ever worry about selling someone the hit that kills them?
Suddenly, all the chummy camaraderie that appeared when I showed him my old tracks marks drains from his face. His expression hardens—I could be a cop, a teacher or a politician. The worst part is, I know it’s a stupid question. But I had to ask it.
To his credit, he dignifies it with an answer. “Before they place an order with me, you know what a motherfucker has to do? They gotta set up a Tor relay, get the browser up and running, find the address of the market and register. Then they gotta find a way to turn dollars into Bitcoins before they can place an order. Shit, if they can do all of that, I figure they’re big enough and ugly enough to buy drugs.”
“Look man, if someone dies shooting my dope then that’s their own tough shit. I try out all the dope I sell. Ain’t nobody getting rat poison from me. But you can’t blame me if someone ODs. They want me to check IDs?”
He smiles again, rant over. “I mean, the shit’s illegal. I’m a dealer. It’s supply and demand, you know?”
Some minor details have been changed to protect identities. Francis Engel is a pseudonym for a writer who lives in New Jersey.