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Dark web drug vendor tripped up by using postage meter, feds say

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Think of the internet as having different layers: the surface web, the deep web and the dark web. Here is an explainer of these layers.
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Think of the internet as having different layers: the surface web, the deep web and the dark web. Here is an explainer of these layers.

Maybe using an internet postage account to do business on the dark web isn’t such a good idea.

Federal authorities investigating narcotics sales over the internet have charged four people after a Sacramento-based task force purchased cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine from online pharmacies operating on the dark web, and part of the case stems from the use of an internet postage account held in the name of one of the suspects, court documents say.

The case began Oct. 15 with an agent from the Northern California Illicit Digital Economy Task Force arranging to buy 2 grams of cocaine from a vendor calling itself Calicartel on the dark web Dream Marketplace account, a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Sacramento says.

The task force was created by the office of U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott and has prosecuted numerous individuals offering sales of narcotics over encrypted sites on the dark web in the last year.

The Calicartel vendor got high marks from users, scoring a 4.96 rating out of 5.0 and offering sales of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, mushrooms, Adderall and other drugs, court documents say.

So the agent placed the order and had the package shipped to an address in Colorado, where tests of a white powder that arrived in a baggie tested positive as cocaine, according to an affidavit filed with the complaint.

The package also had a postage label that drew the attention of a U.S. postal inspector, who determined the postage came from Endicia.com, an online postage vendor, the affidavit says, and the inspector traced the account to a Southern California man named Gabriel Alva.

The investigation picked up steam, with federal agents ordering 3 grams of heroin from Calicartel in November and 7 grams of cocaine in December, as well as 8 grams of crystal methamphetamine from another vendor, Raiseappeals, in December, court papers say.

Raiseappeals also offered various narcotics for sale, and boasted a rating as high as Calicartel’s, court documents say.

Eventually, federal agents obtained a search warrant to access two of Alva’s gmail accounts and began surveillance of his home in Winnetka, where they saw Alva and another suspect, Catherine Stuckey, load a bin into a white Lexus and drive to a post office in Encino, court documents say.

“Once at the post office, Stuckey carried the bin inside accompanied by Alva,” court documents say. “After dropping off approximately 42 parcels from the bin, Alva and Stuckey took free shipping supplies offered by the USPS and departed the post office. ... A USPS employee confirmed that either Alva or Stuckey, or both, come in nearly every day to mail batches of parcels similar to those just mailed.”

Agents continued their surveillance and undercover buys up until May 4, when they ordered 84 grams of crystal methamphetamine from a dark web vendor known as Playground.

The criminal complaint was filed under seal in federal court in Sacramento on May 13, and unsealed Thursday. It charges Alva, Stuckey, George Franco and Ian Hoffman with conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess controlled substances and money laundering and conspiracy.

Three of the defendants – Alva, Franco and Stuckey – are scheduled to make their initial appearances before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Barnes Thursday.

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