Teenagers are now more commonly ordering illegal drugs online through the dark web, rather than buying them directly from a dealer in person, a Detective Garda investigating the criminal use of cryptocurrency has said.
Detective Alan Carbery, who works in the Criminal Assets Bureau (Cab), said organised crime gangs were also now routinely using cryptocurrency to launder money made selling drugs.
“A lot of teenage kids are buying their drugs on the dark net,” Det Carbery told a national prosecutor’s conference on Saturday.
The detective warned parents a “red flag” was if their teenage children were using a special internet browser such as Tor, which can access the dark web.
“Why would they go to a run-down area in the city centre or out in the suburbs, where they are at risk of being robbed, and their funds being taken, when they can order their drugs online from the safety of their home,” he said.
The dark web, which can only be accessed on browsers like Tor that mask the location of the device, is used as a “secret club for criminals”, where cryptocurrency can be used to buy drugs, he said.
Cryptocurrency such as bitcoin, which is a virtual currency used online, is now a crucial part of how organised crime gangs operated, he said.
“It has become the de facto currency of crime, it permeates all areas of crime; money laundering, child sexual abuse material is exchanged with cryptocurrency,” he said.
“All areas of crime now involve an element of cryptocurrency and that’s an area we need to catch up on and be prepared for.”
Bitcoin-specific ATMs, where people can buy cryptocurrency with cash, were being used by street level drug dealers to launder money to “transfer up to their superiors”, the Garda said.
“We’re finding that on an international level as well that shipments of cocaine from South and Central America, are now being paid for in cryptocurrency,” he told the conference.
Cab had to buy software to analyse cryptocurrency transactions to try to follow the money, he said. “These are very expensive tools. They can run up to €50,000 for one licence for one year, but they are essential for our investigation, so it is crucial that we invest in that area,” he said.
In one case in recent years Cab seized bitcoin from someone convicted of online fraud, which was worth more than €5 million by the time the bureau sold it, with the proceeds going to victims of the fraud overseas, he said.
In another case Cab prosecuted a drug dealer and sought orders to seize a series of virtual wallets that contained 6,000 bitcoins. The dealer had hidden the codes required to access the wallet on a piece of paper, rolled up and stored inside a fishing rod.
However, the landlord of the property where he had been living threw out the fishing rod, meaning the funds which have since soared in value to more than €90 million, cannot be accessed by Cab.
Speaking at the conference in the Convention Centre in Dublin, Catherine Pierse, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), said the criminal justice system was facing a serious backlog of cases.
The senior official said she was “very conscious” of the impact delays in cases coming to court were having on victims, as well as those accused of crimes.
Assigning extra judges to the Central Criminal Courts last year had helped tackle delays in rape and murder cases, she said.
However, she said this had also placed “additional pressures” on lawyers working in those courts and prosecutors. “Additional resourcing in one part of the criminal justice system needs to be matched across the system,” she said.
Ms Pierse said Ireland was fortunate that decisions on prosecutions were “made entirely free from any attempt at political interference”.
The head of the DPP said she knew many victims found a decision not to prosecute in a case distressing. “It is important for us to communicate that a decision not to prosecute does not mean that a victim is not believed,” she said.
Ms Pierse said it was crucial when informing complainants of a decision not to prosecute the DPP did not “re-traumatise” the victim.
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