RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It's a place you've probably never been, where drugs guns and other illicit activity are sold in the open.
It's called the "dark web" and your information is likely among the things being sold. It's all part of the criminal world of the internet where anything can be purchased for the right price.
In our neighborhoods, we're all connected to each other through computers and smartphones. And we're all online. But the illegal activity remains hidden under the surface.
"It's kind of like your new drug dealer on the corner in the virtual world," Richmond FBI Supervisory Special Agent Mark Knoll said.
Knoll showed some of the activity that happens in the "dark web." Everyone's identity is concealed, and every message is encrypted.
This part of the internet is unregulated and it might not look like you envision.
The terms "dark web" and "illicit behavior" conjure images of hackers in dark rooms in seedy buildings, but that is not how these sites are organized.
"Not at all," an undercover FBI agent said. "It just looks like an online marketplace."
It works the same as eBay or Amazon with search categories for all types of products and services.
"You can choose or search for exactly what you're looking for," the agent said. "Whether it's digital goods, drugs or other services. You can actually buy a hitman on here as well."
Inside the FBI's office in Richmond, the undercover agent uses special software to access the underground market from a secure computer.
Just about any drug - crystal meth, cocaine, ecstasy heroin, oxycodone - is bought and sold with cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. Once an order is made, it's often delivered in the mail like a regular package.
There are also guns for sale as well porn and prostitution. And, of course, your information.
"Don't assume it's not," Knoll said. "You do not assume that your information is 100 percent secure and that it's not out there somewhere in some form or fashion."
With every data breach, new information is loaded onto the dark web. Stolen driver's licenses and credit card numbers are sold for just a couple of dollars. Debit cards don't even make it this far.
"They will typically keep debit cards for themselves and go and cash those out," the undercover agent said.
Pages and pages or stolen identities are on numerous sites, and because the dark web is anonymous, it's nearly impossible to find the criminals trying to make the sale.
The FBI works with international partners to investigate the different marketplaces that pop up on the dark web. But as soon as one can be shut down, another opens up.
"We are constantly trying to get ahead of and to mitigate, disrupt and even dismantle," Knoll said.
There's a misconception about the level of technical ability needed to access the illicit marketplaces, which is why the agents recommend parents be engaged and aware of their children's online activity.
"As soon as your child opens up that computer or turns on that smartphone and turns on the internet, they're allowing a stranger into your home," Knoll said. "I would educate yourself on the dark web. Read up on it and familiarize yourself with it."
Today's children were born into the digital era and the dark web is within their reach. If you start to notice packages arriving in the mail for your teen, ask questions. If you notice them using an online marketplace that doesn't quite look like Amazon or eBay, ask about it.
Be diligent about protecting your own information. Log into your accounts every day, look for bogus charges and report any you find immediately, especially if it involves a debit card.
Check your credit report three times a year. You get one free check with each credit bureau each year, so space it out over time. For example, check your credit through Experian in January, Transunion in May and Equifax in August or September.
And, most importantly, use strong passwords with all of your online accounts.
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