In July 2018, local police informed Alexis Stern, a recent high school graduate in Big Lake, Minnesota, that there was reason to believe someone wanted her dead. A hit had been requested, for a little over $5,000 in bitcoin, through a website called Camorra Hitmen, a dark-web market advertising gun-for-hire services to anonymous buyers. As it turned out, the site was a scam operation, designed to lure credulous buyers into paying for an act that wouldn’t really be carried out. But for Stern—whose case remains largely unaddressed by police investigators even now—that fact has never been all that reassuring.
Stern’s story, and the story of the white-hat hacker who spends his off-hours battling and exposing these assassination markets, is the subject of Harper’s Magazine’s January cover story, an investigative report by writer and journalist Brian Merchant. In this episode, host and web editor Violet Lucca speaks with Merchant about the deep ambiguity of online assassination requests, what it’s like to come face to face with the disinhibition effect, and the frustrating slowness of police agencies to apprehend this new form of crime.