Harper’s profiles sys-admin Chris Monteiro, who moonlights as a white-hat hacker monitoring dark web sites claiming to offer murder-for-hire services. For example, he tipped off one local police department to a $5,000 bitcoin payment someone made to try to arrange the murder of a teenaged girl on a site run by someone named “Yura”.
[U]sers set up an anonymous account, select from a drop-down menu the kind of violence they would like inflicted, upload the photo and address of their intended target, and wait to hear back through the messaging system. Users often have questions for Yura: How do I know you’re for real? Can you make it look like an accident? When they are satisfied, the user transfers bitcoin into a special wallet on the site, where it will ostensibly be held until the job is completed. Instead, Yura takes the money immediately, and makes no attempt to complete the job. The user complains; Yura says he needs more money to hire a better hit man; the user either pays again or asks for a refund; and Yura either disappears or attempts to extort the user by threatening to turn information over to the authorities…
Despite the repulsive intent, there’s an element of black comedy to some of the logs from Yura’s sites. For one thing, the users’ eagerness to believe the service is real leads them to ignore obvious signs that they are being scammed. Yura’s marketplaces, for example, use stock photos of assassins or photos pulled from Google image searches. His poor English and poorer knowledge of U.S. geography result in glaring slipups, and the language he employs can make him sound like a customer service representative channeling a B-grade Mafia film. During the back-and-forth on one recent order, the user Happynewyear asked Yura if he could send hit men to Hawaii. “Yes,” Yura responded, “we have someone in a nearby state. He can drive to the location with a stolen car and do the job with no problems.” Overlooking the fact that the nearest state is 2,500 miles and a considerable swath of the Pacific Ocean away, the user paid him around three thousand dollars.
Reading through the kill orders, it’s easy to spot the online disinhibition effect — the psychologist John Suler’s theory of why and how human behavior changes when we log on… So far, according to Monteiro, eight people have been arrested for ordering murders through Yura’s websites, on the basis of evidence Monteiro passed to law enforcement. One of them, a young Californian named Beau Brigham, had paid less than $5 toward a hit on his stepmother. Nevertheless, he was found guilty of soliciting murder and sentenced to three years in prison.
One attempted murder was arranged by a man described as “an I.T. professional and elder in the United Church of God,” raising an adopted teenaged son with his wife Amy. “[H]e’d been arranging affairs through the infidelity website Ashley Madison but could not consider divorce because of his position in the church.” In the end he’d simply carried out the murder himself, but “His exchanges with Yura would prove central to the state’s investigation into Amy’s death: the bitcoin signature of the payment…matched the key that authorities found on Stephen’s hard drive at home. Stephen had attempted to make the death look like a suicide, and the bitcoin key was proof it was not. In January 2018, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.”
The article’s author, Brian Merchant, writes that it was hard to research. “There is no easy way to say, ‘Hello, I found your name on a kill list on the dark net, and while the site is a scam the order is not; someone you likely know wants you dead badly enough to pay thousands of dollars to an impossibly shady website. Give me a ring back anytime’… Of those I was able to contact, about half said they had never been alerted by the police.” (Though Monteiro says America’s Department of Homeland Services now plans to investigate everyone who’s made transactions on Yura’s site.)
The article also notes the first known instance of a murder ordered on the dark web and then successfully carried out — this March, on a different dark web site.
Computer programmers never die, they just get lost in the processing.