How an IRS agent discovered the identity of the Silk Road kingpin using Google searches

Ross ulbrichtScreenshotA photo of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht who sentenced to life in prison May 29, 2015.

Sometimes it doesn’t take high-tech wizardry to catch a cyber criminal.

At least that’s the lesson from a young IRS agent, Gary L. Alford, who first uncovered the identity of Silk Road boss RossUlbricht using Google searches.

By the middle of 2013, Ulbricht had built Silk Road into a “dark web” marketplace that facilitated the sale of enormous amounts of contraband, including $300,000 in heroin per day, according to The New York Times. And though multiple government agencies including the FBI were on the hunt for Ulbricht, they didn’t know his name, only his moniker: “Dread Pirate Roberts.”

Alford, a IRS agent who had been assigned to work with the DEA on the case, was the one to finally solve the puzzle of Ulbricht’s identity.

How did he do it?

“I’m not high-tech, but I’m like, ‘This isn’t that complicated. This is just some guy behind a computer,'” Alford had said to himself, according to The New York Times. “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.’ ” So he decided to use old-school tactics.

What ended up finally working was a fairly simple Google search. Alford used “advanced search” on Google to look for content posted between certain dates. That method led him, in late May, 2013, to a chat room post by someone named “altoid,” that was created right before the Silk Road went online.

“Has anyone seen Silk Road yet?” altoid asked, according to The New York Times. “It’s kind of like an anonymous Amazon.com.”

Because the post was so early, Alford suspected it must have come from someone involved in Silk Road. And when he looked through all of altoid’s posts, Alford came across a post that had been deleted, but that showed up in the thread of another user’s reply.

In that post, Altoid had given an email address: [email protected]

From there, all that remained was searching on Google for Ross Ulbricht. Alford discovered he was a guy from Texas who had suspicious overlapping interests with Dread Pirate Roberts. In particular, a love of certain free-market and libertarian thinkers. Bingo.

Alford was ecstatic when he brought his bosses a name and location for a man who turned out to be Dread Pirate Roberts. The problem? His bosses didn’t immediately listen.

But Alford didn’t give up on the Ulbricht lead, and eventually uncovered more information that helped capture Ulbricht and bring down Silk Road.

You can read Alford’s full story at The New York Times.

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