Can You Really Hire a Hit Man on the Dark Web?

A collection of dark web websites offer murder for pay. Researchers say they are scams, but people who want somebody dead aren’t listening.

SAN FRANCISCO – On a website called “Azerbaijani Eagles”, you can order a murder for $5,000. The site “Slayers Hitmen” provides more options, with a beating going for $2,000. Death by torture costs $50,000.

But don’t expect someone to get the job done. Experts and law enforcers who have researched these sites – almost all of them on the so-called dark web or darknet – state they are scams. There has not been a known murder attributed to any of them.

That does not mean the sites aren’t involved in a very dark trade. They have become catch points for real people who are searching to pay to have somebody killed. And several men and women are sitting in prison after paying to one of these sites – and getting caught by law enforcement.

In one of the most recent cases to make its way through the courts, a nurse from Illinois was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to sending $12,000 in Bitcoin to the site Sicilian Hitmen International Network. She had hoped to have the wife of her boyfriend killed.

Twenty-four hit-man-for-hire sites are the subject of an academic paper that was written by a professor at Michigan State University, Tom Holt, and his student, Ariel Roddy.

The paper, which is being reviewed for publication, is the first academic effort to illuminate what has been a subject matter of endless intrigue. For years, the potential anonymity granted by the internet has fed predictions that there would be marketplaces for death and assassination.

A screenshot of the dark net site for Slayers Hitmen, which lists a beating going for $2,000 and death by torture at $50,000.

But it was the emergence of the dark web over the last ten years or thus that allowing hit-man sites to reproduce. Unlike many sites on the traditional internet, dark-web sites make use of a technology that enables both sides of online interaction to hide their identity and location, from each other and law enforcement.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to defraud people because you give them a sufficient amount of feeling of danger,” said Emily Wilson, the head of research at Terbium Labs, a security firm focused on the dark web. “What are you going to do if they don’t go through with it?”

When the first hit-man sites were discovered, an oft-repeated assumption was that the dark web was crawling with legitimate assassins waiting to kill on command.

Promotional materials published to the mainstream internet played on that assumption. One site, which provides visitors with a link to the dark web address of the 18th Street Gang, holds itself out as a “guide to real hit-man, facts, and stories.” The site claims that people who say hit-man sites are scams are just trying to discourage people from searching for them out.

“Many clients purchase from reliable hit-men sites that have been proven as legitimate,” the site says.

On many of the sites examined by the team at Michigan State, considerable effort was expended trying to prove their legitimacy so customers would feel comfortable making a payment in Bitcoin, the digital currency. Hit-Men are not the type of service you pay for with a credit card.

The site 18th Street Mafia includes a page with links to news stories about real killings it says it helped commit. None of the articles, however, indicate that the site, or even a hit-man, was responsible.

For skeptical members of the media, the site says: “We can provide video proof of our services, with time stamps. Again, such proof is not possible for fake services.”

The 18th Street Mafia did not respond to requests for comment.

A screenshot of the dark net website of the 18th Street Gang.

The representative for another site, Darkmamba, said in an email that proving its legitimacy had been difficult because “the point of our services and many others, including underground criminal forums, is to indeed complete the job without leaving anything that could get traced back to us.”

“We make use of ricin in most of our jobs and due to its nature, which does not raise a lot of suspicions,” the representative said. Ricin is a poison found in Castor beans.

One of the most surprising results of the research was that the prices charged by these sites were broadly in line with what past academic research has established as the going price for real-life hit-men – about $11,000 in Australia and $18,000 in England.

The most prolific research on these sites has been conducted by Chris Monteiro, a systems administrator in London who has pursued his investigations as a morbid passion project on top of his regular job.

Mr. Monteiro hacked into one of the sites developed by the most notorious purveyor of assassination sites, a figure going by the name Yura.

After breaking into the Besa Mafia site and a few others, Mr. Monteiro found info about 283 people who had paid for hit-man services. He also found messages suggesting that the operators had little intention of going through with the killings.

“I want you to help me do some videos to prove the Besa Mafia legit, but WITHOUT killing anyone,” the operator wrote in one email, trying to get a contractor to produce lifelike videos. “I am not a murderer, and I don’t wish anyone to be killed.”

Law enforcement agencies around the world have got been hesitant to collaborate with Mr. Monteiro or make use of his evidence because of the way he acquired it. But Mr. Monteiro has worked with media organizations, including Wired and 48 Hours, which have passed his information to law enforcement officials, eventually leading to the arrests of people who paid the sites to connect them with a hit-man.

Mr. Monteiro has identified nine cases in which people he exposed had been arrested in connection with commissioning hits. In one of the nastiest cases, a man in Minnesota was arrested after he was found to have killed his wife himself when the hit-man he had commissioned on the Besa Mafia website for about $6,000 in Bitcoin did not come through.

The British National Crime Agency did monitor and – working with police in Bulgaria – take down one of the sites that Mr. Monteiro had targeted, Crime Bay. Its operators had been based in Bulgaria.

“Investigations are ongoing, and the N.C.A. will continue to work with international law enforcement partners to identify users of sites like these,” said Lucy Sneddon, a spokeswoman for the agency.

A police investigator in Russia is believed to have been murdered by two teens who were hired by a drug trafficker on the dark web. An investigation by the B.B.C. found that the killing had been commissioned on one of the broad markets on the dark web where drugs and stolen credit cards are offered. It was, by most accounts, the first known assassination to be successfully commissioned on the dark web.

But there has still not been a killing commissioned on one of the dedicated hit-man-for-hire sites.

“Why would you set up a dedicated site online, when you understand absolutely that law enforcement is going to be flooding that site trying to find you?” Ms.Wilson said. “You are making yourself too big of a target.”

Still, the sites have continued to proliferate. A few months ago, a middle-aged executive in Singapore was sent to prison for five years after paying the Camorra Hitman site to kill the boyfriend of his young ex-lover in a staged car accident that, not surprisingly, did not happen.

Ms. Wilson said these sites took attention from the real crime being committed on the dark web, like the drug marketplaces and the sites offering the sensitive personal details of a huge number of Us citizens.

“There is an actual crime, but we are too busy talking about some guy who wants to kill his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend,” she said.

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