Soccer

Can You Buy Fixed Soccer Match Results On The Dark Net?

The internet's favorite haven for illegal activity advertises that the fix is yours for the right price

Soccer
Photo Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Jul 22, 2016 at 6:00 AM ET

Frank, who is not really named Frank, doesn’t bother with pleasantries. He’ll throw out a “warm regards” in closing here and there, but otherwise he’s all business. He answers some of my questions. He selectively ignores others. The answers he does send arrive at all times of day and night.

Frank and I communicated over an anonymous messaging service called Appaloosa Chat for about two weeks. I had no idea where Frank is physically located or what his real name is. But Frank knows I’m a journalist, and I know he’s selling fixed soccer match results online, on the dark net. Or so he says.

I spent six months trawling forums and chasing leads looking for Frank, or someone like him, emailing addresses with domain names like safe-mail.net, sigaint.org, and mail2tor.com asking for an interview. Most didn’t respond. Some did, but would only talk if I paid them in Bitcoin upfront.

For whatever reason, Frank was willing to be interviewed. His response to my initial email was wordless but contained a .onion URL—the kind of web address you can only access with the anonymous Tor browser—and an ID number. Clicking the URL connected me to Appaloosa Chat and the ID number connected me to Frank.

Frank runs a site called Fixed American League Matches. Of all the sites claiming to provide fixed match scores, Frank’s is one of the more visually sophisticated, bearing a mild resemblance to a tech startup’s website. Comparatively, some of the other purported match-fixing sites have all the graphic flair of an 8-bit video game.

Experts on match fixing and the dark net kept telling me Frank’s site and those like it are scams. But after two weeks of grilling Frank on his operation, which sounded more real each time we talked, he finally agreed to give me proof his service was legit: He would give me the correct score for a soccer match that had yet to be played.

Frank disappeared for a day after he offered up his services. I thought he’d skipped out, but on June 15 he sent the following message: “Audax Rio EC U20 v Olaria RJ U20. Started 10 minutes ago because delayed. Will end exactly 0-7. Odds are over 40.”

Audax Rio EC and Olaria RJ are under-20 Brazilian soccer teams. The message, according to Appaloosa Chat, was sent 26 minutes after the match’s scheduled start, at which point Olaria RJ had only scored a couple of goals. Olaria RJ won the game in extra time. The score was 7-0. Frank was right.

Accurately predicting a 7-0 soccer score is statistically improbable, much like predicting a 50-0 football score. Was this enough to prove that fixed match results were indeed for sale? Perhaps, but seeing shouldn’t always warrant believing on the anonymous web, where a veil of secrecy works in conjunction with technical know-how, giving scammers an advantage over people who go to the dark net thinking that you can buy anything on the black market with a Tor browser.

There’s no question that professional soccer matches get fixed. In 2014, a joint initiative between FIFA and the International Criminal Police Organization concluded that over a three-year period as many as 80 countries reported allegations of match fixing across various levels of play, noting that it’s a worldwide problem that shows “no signs of abating.” Brian Tuohy, author of the sports corruption book “The Fix Is In,” believes estimates from that investigation likely understate how widespread match fixing truly is because the vested parties—sports leagues, player unions, gambling companies, and their monitoring companies—have no incentive to publicize incidents when they occur.

Match fixing is typically rooted in organized crime. Mob members bribe players, referees, or coaches—some groups have even resorted to blackmail. Crime syndicates groom players at a young age to normalize the corruption. In doing so, the mob has a reliable player for years to come, as well as someone who can help rope in other players. Sometimes older players at the tail end of their careers—those who’ve already blown through their millions—will take money to fix a match.

And it’s not just soccer. Almost every major sports league around the world has had a brush with the mob and fixed matches. Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy was famously busted for manipulating scores on behalf of the Gambino crime family; he believes the mob will always have a hand in sports. That famous photo of Muhammad Ali towering over a fallen Sonny Liston? Some, including the FBI, believed that Liston was told to take a dive on behalf of the various Northeast mafia figures he worked for over the course of his life.

But whether or not Frank is running a legitimate illegitimate business is another matter. It’s possible, says Tuohy, but it’s highly unlikely someone who is in on the fix would sell the results on the dark net, for a number of reasons. Bringing more people into the operation by selling the fixed results increases the risk of getting busted. Moreover, fixers stand to make a lot more money betting on the matches themselves than selling scores on the side, and selling scores to multiple buyers means that more people would place bets on the winning score. Bookmakers would thus lower the odds and, in turn, the final payoff would be reduced.

“That’s like a guy doing insider trading on Wall Street, doing it for millions of dollars and then saying ‘I’ll sell this on the internet for an extra 10 grand,'” Touhy said. “If you’re going to sell it, I’d assume hopefully you’re making more selling the result than you would be betting on its outcome and the odds associated.”

Frank, however, does indeed sell match results in addition to betting on them. His rationale is simple: “Money rules this world and in our minds the more the better. Precautions are necessary but the risk is not so high compared to the profit.”

Whispers of fixed match results for sale also find their way onto dark net message boards. On one anonymous board, someone claims to have results and provides an email address for interested buyers. To prove they have the goods, they offer eight “freebies,” scores from mostly lower level matches in Italy, Brazil, Scotland, the Czech Republic, and Iceland, with one from Austria’s top league. The post is time stamped Feb. 28, 2015, a week before the matches were played. All the scores are correct. Given the sort of league-wide collusion it would take to alter scores after the fact, one can safely assume the posted score is indeed legitimate. However, the anonymous web is full of tricks for conning potential customers.

The way Frank described his operation fit my theory that, legitimate or not, this is not some garden variety dark net scam. Franks says he and his associates met someone five years ago who would “change our lives forever”—that someone being their contact with the group that organizes the rigged matches. While he and his associates get the results by email “encrypted with ECDSA” (a type of cryptographic algorithm) and pay via direct bank transfer and Bitcoin, Frank meets with his liaison once a month just to check in, if only so they “know everything is fine.”

“It’s not like in a James Bond film where we go with bags of money in crowded places to get the information; it’s everything way more relaxed [sic],” he explained.

The price of fixed soccer match results tends to hover around 0.3 BTC, which is about $200, depending on Bitcoin’s volatile exchange rate on any given day. In any given week, Frank has three matches for sale, usually from lower level South American and European leagues, though business is a little slow right now because of the recent Copa America and Euro Cup tournaments, both of which are too high-profile for Frank’s purposes. Moreover, these major games draw most of the soccer betting action, he said. Gamblers aren’t setting their sights on low-level soccer leagues, even if the matches are fixed, when they can bet on the big games.

Frank’s associates run a store in an unknown location to launder the money he brings in. Frank asks that clients either pay him directly or use a dark net escrow service—these third-party middlemen of the dark net often facilitate transactions, legitimate or otherwise, by holding a customer’s money until the business delivers the goods.

“When clients hear this, most of them quit, but some are still interested and they are the clients we want,” he said. “People ready to risk, people that say ‘Fuck it, let’s try,’ because it’s exactly what we did when we started all this.”

If Frank is running a scam, it’s a potentially lucrative one. Internet privacy is a hot topic thanks to revelations about widespread NSA surveillance, and the anonymous web has become increasingly mainstream as a result. But many of Tor’s new users don’t have a reference point for what’s real and what isn’t when they get on, other than the sometimes hysterical and often inaccurate media reports on some of the platform’s more lurid content. In short, the dark net is seeing a rush of gullible new users.

“You can trust a number of cybercrime services out there,” said Chris Monteiro, an independent researcher who’s debunked some of the anonymous web’s biggest scams, including the Besa Mafia “hitmen-for-hire” scam. According to Monteiro, drugs, fraud, and technical services are indeed sold over the dark net, but if you’re trying to purchase illegal services, “your chances for bullshit are enormous.”

The bullshit factor doesn’t keep people from advertising that they have fixed scores for sale on the anonymous web. At least four .onion URLs claim that you can buy your way into the fix; it’s hard to be certain how many match fixing sites are out there because users seeking them out are dependent on link indexes such as Hidden Wiki—an anonymous version of Wikipedia—that aren’t comprehensive and anonymous web search engines that can’t match Google’s reach.

If Frank’s service is a scam, it wouldn’t even be close to the most elaborate—the web is a treasure trove of illegal schemes that go far beyond match-fixing. The bogus hitmen-for-hire service Besa Mafia unleashed a relentless marketing campaign that included flooding message boards with fake customer reviews and paying people to delete negative comments. They even produced videos meant to intimidate critics like Monteiro, who says his efforts exposing the Besa scam made him a threat to the operation, which, he says, has netted upwards of £50,000.

Reputation is everything,” Monteiro said of dark net scams. “You can buy reputation by the media or you can buy reputation just by SEO, shilling, et cetera. Reputation is worth so much to a scammer. The minute they’re debunked, the whole [operation] is gone.”

Monteiro looked into Frank’s site and concluded that it is, in his words, “Fakey McFakerson.” Frank warns visitors about on his site about “scammers”—presumably an attempt to make himself seem more legitimate—but these supposed scammers’ email addresses either don’t exist or are unregistered. And despite claiming to be on the dark net for for five years, Frank’s domain has been registered for less than two months (although Frank referenced having to move domains a couple of times after being hacked). And Frank’s preferred escrow service lacks high-end encryption security—the kind of escrow you use when you’re “phishing for suckers,” Monteiro said.

But what about the 7-0 score Frank gave me over Appaloosa Chat? His message was timestamped shortly after the match began; doesn’t that demonstrate that he has the goods?

I wouldn’t say it’s impossible the scammer is affiliated with this chat service,” Monteiro said, pointing out that the timestamp could have been altered. “[Appaloosa Chat] is not very well established as far as I’m aware. It’s not beyond the realm of belief that the scammer is linked with the person who runs this website and he can call in favors for timestamp manipulation.” 

And even if Frank’s match fixes are real, dark net scams can still be scams even if the seller actually has what they claim to sell, making it risky to buy anything over the anonymous web, even on proven and trusted markets such as AlphaBay. After the original Silk Road was shut down by the FBI in 2013, a site called The Sheep Market temporarily filled the void before its administrators deleted the site and ran off with an estimated $40 million in Bitcoin deposits made by its users.

It’s within the realm of possibility that you’ve found the guy who’s doing what he says,” Monteiro said of Frank. “But there has to be so much skepticism to this because you can’t trust the platform and you can’t trust the guy. I’d be so skeptical of this.”