The biggest black market on the so-called “dark net,” AlphaBay, has been taken down by authorities, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday.
AlphaBay connected drug vendors with people seeking drugs like fentanyl and heroin, authorities said.
The “dark net” is a constellation of sites and services that can be accessed through a special browser, usually Tor, which routes online traffic so it’s much more difficult to identify where it originally came from.
The first and previously most famous black market on the dark web was Silk Road, which was taken down in 2013 and whose operator, Ross Ulbricht, is currently serving a life sentence.
AlphaBay was 10 times larger than Silk Road, authorities said at a press conference on Thursday.
“Around the time of the takedown of this site, there were more than 250,000 listings for illegal drugs and toxic chemicals on AlphaBay,” Sessions said. “As of earlier this year, 122 vendors advertised fentanyl. 238 advertised heroin.”
Other illegal products advertised on the site include hacking tools and guns. Transactions on dark web marketplaces typically use Bitcoin as the currency of choice, although AlphaBay took Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies as well.
“This is likely one of the most important criminal investigations of this entire year. I have no doubt of that,” Sessions continued.
FBI authorities said the takedown required coordination across several countries, including Thailand, Canada, Netherlands, and Lithuania, as well as support from Interpol.
The biggest market
AlphaBay was started in 2014, and had grown to be the dominant online black marketplace with as many as 200,000 users, the FBI said. One estimate pegged daily sales on the site between $600,000 and $800,000 per day.
AlphaBay mysteriously went offline earlier this month. It turned out that one of the site’s administrators and founders, 26-year-old Alexandre Cazes, had already been arrested and had been found dead in a jail cell in Thailand, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“Alleged members of the conspiracy used anonymizing techniques trying to conceal their identities and locations. Peeling back one there after another took us to two new countries,” deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein said.
AlphaBay made money by taking a percentage of all purchase prices as a commission, similar to how eBay makes money. Authorities said in court documents that AlphaBay had collected commissions of “tens of millions of dollars.”
Undercover authorities made several purchases of heroin, fentanyl, marijuana, and fake IDs during 2015 and 2016, according to court filings.
The big break in the case came in December 2016, when authorities discovered Cazes’ personal email in some emails sent by AlphaBay administrators, such as password recovery emails. Cazes used the email “Pimp_Alex_91@hotmail.com,” according to court filings.
Authorities were able to tie the email to a forum posting from 2008 in which Cazes identifies himself. When authorities found him on July 5, he was allegedly logged into the AlphaBay website as “Admin” on an unencrypted laptop.
- Court filing
- REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Like the Silk Road, the demise of AlphaBay will lead other people to form dark-net black markets, hoping for the potential earnings that come from running the largest one.
Authorities understand that finding online black markets is a game of whack-a-mole.
“Critics will say as we shutter one site, another will emerge. And they may be right,” FBI director Andrew McCabe said. “But that’s the nature of criminal work. It never goes away, you constantly have to keep at it, and you have to use every tool in your toolbox.”
Authorities also seized a second, smaller marketplace, called Hansa. An Interpol official said that it saw an 8x increase in the number of users on Hansa after the takedown of AlphaBay.
“The team play we ran here was to take over control of the Hansa market under Dutch judicial authority a month ago,” Interpol director Rob Wainwright said at a press conference.
“What this meant, in particular, was that we could identify and disrupt the regular criminal activity that was happening on Hansa market but also seep up all of those new user that were displaced from AlphaBay and looking for a new trading platform for their criminal activities,” he continued.
Interpol’s coordinated raid underscores the difficulty with policing online black markets: As one goes down, others will pop up. It took years to take down AlphaBay, but authorities are generally optimistic they have turned a corner.
“The infrastructure of the underground criminal economy has taken a serious hit. A much bigger even than what we saw in 2013 with Silk Road,” Wainwright said.
“There are more of these operations to come,” he added.
Read the court documents below: