"Key Word" Auctions Use Internet to Traffic Drugs
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West Side Beat
[EUGENE, ORE.] When Martha Gafden won an online auction for an album by a popular disco group, what she received in the mail turned out to be something very different.
"Instead of getting my Bee Gees LP," Gafden says, "I got a package with four ounces of marijuana inside."
Gafden says she thought the auction was expensive, but she really wanted the album.
"I'm a big fan," she says.
Gafden unwittingly participated in one of an increasing number of "key word" auctions on the popular Internet site eBay. Under investigation by federal officials, Key Word auctions sell not the merchandise apparently listed but illegal drugs.
Worried she could be charged with a crime, Gafden notified authorities. The marijuana and package it arrived in were seized as evidence.
According to investigator John Sagget, key words are determined in chatrooms or using instant messenging software between anonymous parties. The auction is placed for something as ubiquitous as "Pepperoni Pizza" or "Michael Bolton's Love Songs," usually featuring full descriptions of the bogus merchandise and even pictures.
Sellers hide their identities by using stolen credit card numbers to pay eBay fees, and by mailing from multiple locations. According to investigators, evidence indicates a single organization is posting the auctions, then directing buyers addresses to suppliers throughout the country, who mail the packages from street mailboxes.
Tip-offs, says Sagget, can be starting bids that don't match the obvious value of the merchandise, or exorbitant "Buy It Now" prices, which allow purchasers to circumvent the auction and buy the product outright, usually for a higher price.
"They're getting smarter," Sagget says. "We've been working with eBay to try and at least take the auctions off their service once we recognize them for what they are, but the dealers are getting better at choosing merchandise that matches the street value of whatever they're trying to move."
The only problem with prices matching the products offered, is that innocent buyers like Martha Gafden unwittingly bid on a Ziplock full of weed.
"I didn't even know what it was," she says. Gafden's sixteen year-old son told her the package contained marijuana. That's when she called the police.
eBay representatives refuse to comment on the misuse of their sites and services other than to stand by the "Caveat Emptor" blanketing all their auctions: Let the buyer beware.
"They're totally in the dark," says Raptor, a drug dealer who specializes in internet distribution utilizing sites like eBay and its subsidiary Half.com.
I found Raptor with surprisingly little difficulty in a Love.com chatroom for 20-Somethings. Amongst all the other keyboard chatter on the screen, Raptor's tagline asked: "Nugs, nugs nugs?"
"You think it's totally stupid for me to do something like that in a public space," Raptor says. "But that's exactly what they won't notice. The more public I make myself, the less likely it'll be that I get noticed by police or whatever. They think we're running some secret Web site out of Sweden or something. The truth is, I'm just like the guy walking down a college campus whispering to people."
When the few who recognize what Raptor's offering respond, he communicates with them via chatrooms, instant messenger services, and online email such as Microsoft's Hotmail, sounds out their credibility as buyers, then sends them the address of the auction or item on sale that is really drugs.
Sometimes the key word auctions are recognized by prospective buyers without him directing them, he says. In these cases, buyers email the seller and each gauges the others knowledge of what's really being sold. These auctions are more rare, however, as law enforcement catches on to the constantly changing key words. Development of different key words moves quickly through the culture, so that use of an old word can instantly signal sellers to probing investigators.
"One week it's Buck Rogers' underwear," Raptor says. "The next week it's signed nude photos of Madonna. You don't know unless you know."
As more and more dealers move into the as-yet unstaked online territory, creative false auctions actually represent a form of credibility, like street clothes would otherwise. Buyers want to patronize only the most fashionable sellers, and the underground advertising has been recognized to influence such mainstream media as MTV2, where DJs often use key word auction slang. The practice has grown into a vibrant and lucrative, though anonymous, community.
"The beauty of it is," Raptor says, "I don't even move the product. Somebody else sets that up. When the sale goes through, I get my cut. It's perfect. It's perfect because these companies like eBay and whatnot, they don't ever put eyes-on anything they're selling. So their hands are clean, and so are mine, so are the guy's who started the auction, and so are the guy's who finally mails the goods, because none of us know each other in real life, and never will."
Raptor says his group uses the online money transfer service Paypal to distribute profits.
"Who says porn's the only thing making money on the Internet?" Raptor asks. "eBay won't stop us -- they're getting their cut just like we are."
Though the auction service is touted as one of the few legitimate businesses turning a profit on the Internet, the company did recently announce a rate increase to its users.
John Sagget acknowledges his agency is fighting a losing battle on a continually evolving front.
"What makes me sad," Sagget says, "is that I know marijuana is probably the least harmful substance being trafficked in this manner. There really is no knowing the full scope of what commerce is taking place under the blind eyes of these Internet storefronts."
But Sagget also says that such buying and selling has always taken place -- like all things recently, the Internet simply makes it easier and available to a wider audience. He says he's reluctant even to talk with the media about the investigation for fear of copycat crime.
"It's inevitable," he says. "If government agencies don't talk about it, they'll find out from some bulletin board in cyberspace."
Sagget looks out his office window at the parking lot outside. A game of solitaire sits waiting on his computer monitor.
"I left that guy negative feedback," Gafden says of the seller who sent her the marijuana. Buyers and sellers are able to rate each others trustworthiness on the site using feedback comments.
"But what's that matter?" she continues. "Everybody else on there gave him A-pluses and said he was the greatest. How's eBay even going to believe me when so many other people are pleased as punch with the guy? He gave me A-pluses!"
Gafden was able to find her Bee Gees LP a couple weeks later.
Should you suspect that an online auction you've participated in might in fact be for illegal drugs, either because it's a dutch auction and the minimum bid seems unusual, or the "Buy It Now" price is too high, or it is for something ridiculous like "A Half Box of Kotex Tampons" or "Urban Dance Squad's Greatest Hits" contact the seller using the email address provided on the page.
Legitimate sellers will answer your questions honestly and openly. Should it be a "Key Word" auction, the seller will realize you don't know what you're buying and delete your bid.
For more information, contact the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency at www.dea.gov.
James Stegall is our man on the street!