Surprise visit: Police warn alleged darknet drug buyers

It was an unexpected knock on the door for those who allegedly bought drugs anonymously — or so they thought — on a darknet market place.

Police and federal agents in the Netherlands and the United States paid unannounced visits Wednesday and Thursday to nearly 100 people they say are drug buyers who used the Hansa Market, an online bazaar operating in the "darknet," an anonymity-friendly internet netherworld used for illicit commerce and which is inaccessible to standard browsers.

The alleged buyers' identities became known to law enforcement authorities when Dutch cyber detectives secretly took over the site in June and acted as its administrators, collecting usernames and passwords and logging data on thousands of drug sales.

Dutch police said they visited 37 alleged buyers this week and arrested one person over the weekend on suspicion of buying 150 ecstasy pills on the darknet. Their American counterparts targeted about 50 others.

"You may be sitting in the United States buying drugs on the dark web from another country and you may think that's a safe thing to do and the message is it's not safe," Kevin Scully, European Regional Director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, told The Associated Press ahead of the so-called "knock and talk" operations. "You can't evade prosecution and you can't evade law enforcement by using the dark web. You can be identified."

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last year that more than two-thirds of the quarter-million listings on Hansa Market and AlphaBay, another darknet market that was taken down shortly before Hansa, were for illegal drugs. Other illicit wares for sale included weapons, counterfeit and stolen identification and malware.

Public prosecutors will decide whether to press charges for the buyers.

Scully said this week's action was primarily to raise public awareness more than to make arrests.

"Buying drugs on the internet is not safe and we want to make sure people stop doing," he said. "It's illegal and not safe."