After TradeRoute’s support admin resurfaced on Reddit, I messaged him on his verified Reddit account and asked for an interview. He agreed to answer some questions regarding his time at TradeRoute and the suspicious events that led to the site’s disappearance.
Loyalty, Distrust, and Betrayal — Thoughts from a TradeRoute Support Admin
Although I had trouble verifying his key, /r/darknetmarket mods managed to confirm his identity. We are (slowly) working towards verifying the signature without sending the OpenPGP blobs in the body of an email. Also note that the Reddit mod known as /u/TradeRouteModerator had difficulty formatting keys and signed messages correctly.
On Reddit, you mentioned when and how you became a TradeRoute mod. Can you briefly describe how you became SamCulperTR?
I worked at Trade Route a total of 2.5 months or so. I became Sam Culper for one reason. It is all about respect for the greatest US Spy in the world. He was the main spy in George Washington’s First every Spy ring. The Culper Ring.
Culper explained how he had worked as a solo vendor for three to four years before working for TradeRoute. He said that he had operated on on six darknet markets within one year of opening shop. By January 2017, Culper needed a new market. “So of course I ended up finding TradeRoute [and after] seeing the market, I was extremely impressed.” During that three to four year period, he said he had built a solid reputation as a vendor.
TradeRoute “Admin” (more on this later) allegedly knew Culper from other darknet markets. He then started speaking with Admin “on a very friendly basis.” They talked about darknet markets, politics, and life in general. If I am accurately interpreting the description given to me, Culper and Admin were friends. In “June or July,” Admin asked Culper to join TradeRoute staff. Culper declined, stating his ventures took priority.
After the Alphabay and Hansa seizures in July, Culper — still only a vendor — decided to quit his operation. He said that he wanted to sit back and enjoy life. He logged into TradeRoute at some point after he had stopped selling drugs online. Culper wanted to check in with Admin from a friendly, non-business standpoint.
After Admin offered Culper a job as dispute moderator with a pay of $7,500/month, Culper took the deal. Sam Culper generated his moderator PGP key on August 15, 2017. While he gave me no start date, it would presumably have been around this period. Around that time, TradeRoute support’s PGP key changed from a TradeRoute key to Culper’s key, arousing suspicion on Reddit until the TradeRoute Reddit moderator stepped in and explained the situation.
Sam Culper, under his Reddit username /u/SamCulperTR, stepped in confirming the key and start date. “My PGP was created when I started working for Trade Route,” he said. “This Reddit account was created on the same days.” This can be confirmed by looking at this first post on Reddit as well.
General TradeRoute Information
How many positions existed at TradeRoute?
I answered only to Admin and Technical Admin. There was a total of 5 people. Sam Culper, BlueBios. Which was my protege. I was teaching him the ropes. And we had a trade route REDDIT moderator. But neither blue bios or Reddit moderator knew anything
Culper moved up the ranks at a surprising rate. I spoke with him regarding his quick climb from vendor to pseudo admin.
During the time you worked as a mod, your pay went from a relatively low number to something crazy. Did your responsibilities as a mod increase as well?
Admin ( The one I was closest to ) loved the way I handled my job. He offered me more work. He said he had never trusted someone like me before. He gave me the right as Forum Administrator + Scam Watch. My duties there were finding scammers and deleting unwanted threads from the forum. All this while I was still working as a dispute moderator. The Admins were telling me the market was growing at an insane rate. I believe he said almost 100 orders a minute.
The Admins were telling me the market was growing at an insane rate. I believe he said almost 100 orders a minute.
I was the main guy working there now [late-August]. He gave me another promotion. My salary went from 8k a month to 14–15k a month. When he saw the market grow at this insane rate, he asked me to be support Admin as well.
On Reddit, Culper pointed out that OxyMonster’s bust contributed to his raise. The former Dream mod and TradeRoute vendor “OxyMonster” recently landed in the United States for a beard convention (I am serious). US law enforcement grabbed him as he touched down. TradeRoute Admin realized that the police wanted moderators and support admins, adding to the risk of filling either position.
Still on the topic of the pay and responsibility increase:
So at this point (September), I was Dispute, Forum, and Support Admin. + Scam Watcher. For this reason, he gave me 56.000 a month. He could clearly see due to my extremely active presence that I was part of the market growing as it did. I loved my job. I loved my bosses. I worked at TradeRoute a total of 2.5 months or so.
But some things did not feel right with me. 1. Phishzkingz extortions. 2. There was a shift in Admin behavior. Near the last two weeks, they were asking me whom I wanted to ban from the site. Which to me was very strange. Because they always wanted me to give names so they could ban them. All of the sudden they gave me much responsibility.
I transitioned to the events that had allegedly ended TradeRoute. Probably best covered in a post on DeepDotWeb. (Information came from DeepDot and Phishkingz)
TradeRoute and PhishKingz
How long had PhishKingz extorted the market?
Phishkingz extorted for about 1.5 months I believe. Admin was telling me we had nothing to worry about and that he was ‘’stalling’’ time from its code being exposed. When I found out they were paying PK, I got very upset and was almost about to quit. But Admin decided to be honest with me because he knew I would leave if lied or bullshitted to.
BlueBios and TradeRouteModerator knew nothing of the attacks or extortion; Culper told me that he served as a middleman between the admins and BlueBios.
One question frequently asked is why TradeRoute admins did not fix the issue (that seemed minor in the chat logs) and instead offered PK a weekly payment. Thoughts?
And to your great point that often asked. Why would he pay Phishkingz the full amount? PK was a kid who could barely write a proper sentence. He would spend the money. And then come blackmail again. I personally believed that the Admins were actually fixing it. So they could tell PK to get gone.
Did PK have any association with the market before the extortion
Phishkingz was never a person of interest. [None] of us knew him. The admins just felt really bad. I know for sure that they wanted to keep this market running as long as possible. They did not want this ending. They did it in an unfair way. Even for me. They lied to me. Made me calm people down.
You noticed the admin behavior change. Was this just in anticipation of the exit scam or do you think they could have been compromised?
As you [may have] seen from the long Reddit post, I made yesterday. I was really honored and proud to reach the ranks of TradeRoute, and I was very upset and almost depressed about this whole exit scam. And what I meant about admins behavior was really around the last two weeks of the market exit scamming.
For example, They were letting me write every announcement. I assume they thought their style of writing could get them caught. And the freedom to seriously perm ban any user and vendor I wanted to. Those weeks I knew something was about to change.
Right before shutdown when withdrawals stopped working. I started warning vendors that I had become friends with. I kept telling vendors do NOT send any product until [the market fixed the withdrawal function]. I was truly loved, and they believed me, and it saved them thousands of wasted product.
After PK discovered the market had vanished, he attacked you on Reddit. Can you share any conversations between the two of you?
When PK started harassing me on Reddit. I first ignored it. But I am a hot-headed person. I knew he was the reason TR was gone. I insulted and taunted him a bit. Which I should not have done. But he had spammed me so much. Taunting me with customers info. It was horrible. I knew he would leak it anyway. But at the end of the conversation he tells me:
‘’You will see Sam, I am gonna make you look real bad in this.’’
That was the end. And then I came back yesterday.
One last thing: do you know anything about the DDoS attacks beyond public information?
I do not know anything about the DDOS with proof. But I have some real suspicion in who and what it can be. My guess its LE trying to find the servers by DDOSing all markets. And at the same time, they can record how much fewer drugs are being sold/bought. That way they can make statistics. If they come out good. They will most likely DDOS more.
I have a bachelor in [Redacted. Relevant bachelor’s degree]. With a short training in [Redacted. Training in two fields related to internet crime and infosec]. For a certificate. So I know quite about some of the tactics they use.
We chatted for a bit longer, but I decided to put the remaining information in a brief analysis of TradeRoute. Culper is moving on from TradeRoute. He recently posted on Reddit looking for employment.