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More corruption by Silk Road Task Force ex-feds accused of stealing $1 million

Apr 01, 20157 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

More interesting tidbits garnered from the criminal complaint aimed at former DEA and U.S. Secret Service Special Agents, who were part of Baltimore's Silk Road Task Force, and who are charged with bitcoin money laundering and wire fraud.

Like you’d see in the movies, if a person has perpetrated a heist, then they probably shouldn’t t go on a huge buying spree, such as paying off your home mortgage, listing your “net worth in excess of $1 million” when purchasing a company franchise, opening Scottrade and E-Trade accounts, or writing checks payable to “cash.” Someone is likely to grow suspicious about potential ill-gotten gains if your bank accounts reflect a huge amount that cannot be explained by your salary. Yet this was what former DEA agent Carl Force did, according to the criminal complaint (pdf).

Here are more interesting tidbits garnered from the criminal complaint, a continuation from “mistakes that betrayed anonymity of former DEA agent and Silk Road investigator.”

Former DEA Special Agent Force used fake ID documents created by the DEA as his “undercover identity” when he tried to create an account with the Bitstamp digital currency exchange. Bitstamp’s verification process spit it back out, rejecting those documents as “not genuine.” After Force tried again, but with his real ID documents, he obtained a Bitstamp account associated with his personal checking account and two personal email addresses. The criminal complaint details the numerous attempts Force made to withdrawal hefty bitcoin sums and transfer the money into his bank account; often the big amounts would trigger a Bitstamp Know Your Customer (KYC) check during which Bitstamp asked for more information from Force. It was a freeze, unfreeze Bitstamp account situation that ping-ponged back and forth.

During KYC checks, Force sent numerous emails to Bitstamp. Several included a big-bad-badge tactic that Force seemed to fall back on many times throughout the alleged dealings and schemes spelled out in the complaint. He would emphasize his status of working as a Department of Justice and DEA Special Agent investigating Silk Road and Dread Pirate Roberts.

As part of Bitstamp’s fraud and theft prevention, the bitcoin exchange asked Force why he accessed his account via Tor. This is when, as mentioned yesterday, Force wrote, “I utilize TOR for privacy. Don’t particularly want NSA looking over my shoulder :)” The complaint stated, “The following day, a member of Bitstamp’s management learned of Force’s comments and thought it was strange that a government official would make such a statement. Force’s account was blocked again.”

After finally transferring $201,000 worth of bitcoins from Bitstamp, Force had the audacity to email Bitstamp and request “that they delete all transaction history associated with his account.”

When the authorities were clearly closing in, but before Force asked for and accepted a “Queen for a day” letter, aka a Proffer Agreement, Force wired $235,000 to an offshore account in Panama.

Death From Above

The criminal complaint mentions many pieces of electronic communication evidence snagged from computers belonging to Ross Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR). Besides pretending to be “Nob” and “French Maid,” Force also contacted DPR with the fictitious persona of “Death From Above.” Force conveniently made no mention of Death From Above to his DEA superiors, perhaps because he allegedly used that account for the purpose of blackmailing Ulbricht for $250,000.

The complaint included much of the back-and-forth correspondence between the two, a sample of a threatening message from Death From Above to DPR, as well as a “log” file on Ulbricht’s laptop which stated, “guy blackmailing me who says he has my ID is bogus.”

Misuse, abuse, and government databases

If the misuse of government databases to run checks on people was mentioned a couple times in the criminal complaint, how many times did Force abuse his privileges that the DOJ doesn’t know about? It’s a gross abuse of power by anyone, but the DEA’s Special Operations Division (SOD) is especially known for the constitutionally questionable practice of training agents “to ‘recreate’ the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated.”

Venmo, a subsidiary of PayPal, is described as a “payment platform company that enables person-to-person and merchant payment transactions using an application on mobile phones or other internet-connected devices.” Force opened a Venmo account using the name “cforce;” another account using “R.R.” opened an account on the same day. R.R. initiated a payment to Force along with a transaction note about reversing payment for $2,500. Venmo fraud control flagged the transaction as “high-risk payment activity” and blocked both accounts.

Force used a personal email account to contact Venmo, asking for his account to be unlocked so he could withdraw $2,500. He claimed that “R.R. was the target of a federal undercover investigation for which Force was the assigned case agent and the payment was for an undercover Bitcoin transaction.” He sent a copy of his badge and credentials as well as mentioned that “he was interested in partnering with Venmo for employment opportunities.”

Apparently Venmo was unimpressed as Force’s account remained blocked, so Force served an administrative subpoena from his official DOJ email account and carbon copied his personal email account. It demanded Venmo “lift the freeze on the account of Carl Force effective immediately.”

Venmo rejected the subpoena as an improper use of an official government administrative subpoena and refused to lift the freeze. Instead, Venmo contacted Force’s DEA superiors.

At this point, Force asked a co-agent to run queries for Venmo through a law enforcement database, giving specifics to search for what might possibly allow Force to seize their bank accounts. “In other words,” the complaint states, “Force appears to have been targeting Venmo for seizure after the company rebuffed his attempts to use a subpoena for his own personal matter.”

A month passed and still Venmo had Force’s account locked up tight, so Force contacted the company via his personal email and threatened to sue. Another email claimed the “funds in his account were personal and stolen by R.R.” and had nothing to do with the DEA. He told Venmo not to contact the DEA again.

It was later determined that Force used his DEA superior’s signature stamp to execute the subpoena. Force attempted to hide this, after submitting his letter of resignation, by putting documents into a “burn box” to be destroyed instead of into the official case file. The burn box was seized and analyzed.

Former Secret Service Special Agent hid laptop in ‘wipe’ station

Force wasn’t the only fed trying to destroy evidence of alleged wrongdoing, as former U.S. Secret Service Special Agent Shawn Bridges, also mentioned in the criminal complaint, attempted to hide a laptop in the “wipe station.” Bridges worked for the Secret Service’s Electronic Crimes Task Force; his specialty was described as “computer forensics and anonymity software derived from TOR.” He was also to “assist with perpetrating” a supposed “murder-for-hire by working on ‘proof of death’ photographs” that “Nob” was to send to DPR.

The complaint covers both chat and text messages used as evidence against Bridges. He is accused of, among other things, controlling or accessing the Silk Road “Number13” account “that appears to have initiated sizeable bitcoin thefts.” He allegedly asked Force to use the “Nob” account to ask DPR about the best way to liquidate bitcoins into dollars before wiring over $820,000 to his bank account from Mt. Gox bitcoin transfers. Two days later, “Bridges served as the affiant on a seizure warrant for $2.1 million in Mt. Gox Accounts.”

When the noose started to tighten around his neck, and Bridges resigned after being told he was suspended; he handed in one USSS computer, but placed a second Apple laptop “in a cabinet directly above an area that USSS Baltimore personnel use as a ‘wipe’ station,” mostly likely hoping the evidence would be poofed from existence.

Both of the former feds are accused of numerous charges and are suspected of making off with over $1 million in bitcoins. As the DOJ stated, “The charges contained in the complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.”

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.