More than three years after the FBI shut down the Silk Road, the pioneering dark-web marketplace for drugs and illegal goods, the FBI and DEA – working with international law-enforcement agencies - have busted two more dark-web marketplaces that facilitated the sales of illicit items like drugs, weapons and stolen data, according to the Department of Justice.
AlphaBay and Hansa, two of the largest illegal marketplaces on the dark web, have been shut down and their operators arrested during a collaboration between US and European police agencies, according to the BBC. Investigations were led by the FBI and DEA in partnership with Europol.
The takedown has severely disrupted criminal enterprises around the world, has led to the arrest of key figures involved in online criminal activity, and yielded huge amounts of intelligence that will lead to further investigations, according to a Europol press release.
US authorities became interested in the site after several fatalities, including the deaths of two 13-year-old boys in Park City, Utah, who overdosed on a powerful synthetic opioid known as “pinky,” were linked to AlphaBay, according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
"One victim was just 18 years old when in February she overdosed on a powerful synthetic opioid which she had bought on AlphaBay,” Sessions said, before warning criminals that “you cannot hide” from the DOJ. “We will find you," he said.
The takedown was part of a larger international effort to take down dark web sites, according to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
AlphaBay has been offline since early July, fueling suspicions among users that a law enforcement crackdown had taken place. Previously, the site had as many as 40,000 vendors and 200,000 members, according to figures from Europol ad the DOJ. Canadian Alexandre Cazes, a 26-year-old alleged administrator at Alpha Bay, was arrested in Thailand on July 5, allowing authorities to begin seizing assets belonging to him and his wife. Police also seized three properties, four Lamborghinis, and millions of dollars’ worth of bitcoin, which they said represented the proceeds from the site’s illegal activities.
According to DOJ, Cazes, known as Alpha02 and Admin on the site, was charged with one count of conspiracy to engage in racketeering, one count of conspiracy to distribute narcotics, six counts of distribution of narcotics, one count of conspiracy to commit identity theft, four counts of unlawful transfer of false identification documents, one count of conspiracy to commit access device fraud, one count of trafficking in device making equipment, and one count of money laundering conspiracy.
Cazes was later found dead in a Bangkok jail cell. A year ago, Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without parole for his role in operating the Silk Road.
Police in other countries, including the UK, France and Lithuania, also contributed to the investigation.
The Dutch National Police took over the Hansa marketplace on 20 June after servers in the Netherlands, Germany and Lithuania were seized, according to the BBC.
This allowed for "the covert monitoring of criminal activities on the platform" until it was eventually shut down a month later.
Sessions applauded the DOJ’s work on the investigation and warned criminals that there’s “no place to hide” from law enforcement, even on the dark web, according to a DOJ press release.
“This is likely one of the most important criminal investigations of the year – taking down the largest dark net marketplace in history,” Sessions said. “Make no mistake, the forces of law and justice face a new challenge from the criminals and transnational criminal organizations who think they can commit their crimes with impunity using the dark net. The dark net is not a place to hide. The Department will continue to find, arrest, prosecute, convict, and incarcerate criminals, drug traffickers and their enablers wherever they are.”
Organized crime poses a “serious threat to our national and economic security,” said acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
“Whether they operate in broad daylight or on the dark net, we will never stop working to find and stop these criminal syndicates. We want to thank our international partners and those at the Department of Justice, the DEA and the IRS-CI for their hard work in demonstrating what we can do when we stand together.”
Europol Executive Director Rob Wainwright said the operation was "massively successful."
"Concerted action by law enforcement authorities in the United States and Europe, with the support of Europol, has delivered a massive blow to the underground criminal economy and sends a clear message that the dark web is not a safe area for criminals. I pay tribute to the excellent work of the United States and European authorities for the imaginative and resourceful way they combined their efforts in this case.”
While Sessions & Co. were taking questions, one reporter asked Sessions if he’d like to comment on rumors that he might resign, sparked by disparaging comments made about Sessions by President Donald Trump in an interview with the New York Times. Sessions said he plans to stay on at DOJ “as long as that is appropriate.”
Following its creation in December 2014, AlphaBay emerged as an heir to the Silk Road, according to the Wall Street Journal. Both sites were accessible via Tor, a network that takes steps to preserve the anonymity of its users.
While the Silk Road’s primary focus was drug sales, AlphaBay was more diverse, selling stolen credit-card numbers, drugs, online-fraud tutorials and guns, Andrei Barysevich, a director at Recorded Future Inc., which sells data about online threats and the Dark Web, told WSJ.