‘Dark web’ sites shut down by st­ing

Waikato Times Weekend - - WORLD -

UNITED STATES: Two so-called ‘‘dark web’’ sites ded­i­cated to il­le­gal drug and arms sales have been seized in an au­da­cious st­ing op­er­a­tion, and the sus­pected ring­leader has com­mit­ted sui­cide, US Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cials say.

Alexan­dre Cazes, a 25-year-old man from Que­bec who was sus­pected of cre­at­ing the il­le­gal on­line mar­ket­place Al­phaBay, was ar­rested by Thai author­i­ties this month at the Bangkok home he shared with his wife. He com­mit­ted sui­cide by hang­ing while in cus­tody on July 12, said Lau­ren Hor­wood, spokes­woman for the US At­tor­ney’s Of­fice Eastern Dis­trict of Cal­i­for­nia, yes­ter­day.

Cazes had been charged in con­nec­tion with run­ning the black mar­ket site, which Hor­wood called ‘‘much big­ger’’ than Silk Road, a no­to­ri­ous dark web mar­ket­place seized by law en­force­ment in 2013.

Al­phaBay, which was started in 2014, shortly af­ter Silk Road’s demise, was ‘‘a num­ber one go-to mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to a lot of the guides’’, said Robert Gehl, a Univer­sity of Utah as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor who is work­ing on a book on the dark web. ‘‘It was al­ways the high­est-rated mar­ket, and it had a lot of vol­ume.’’

The for­fei­ture com­plaint said Cazes had built the site into an in­ter­na­tional bazaar with an­nual sales in the hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars.

The site ad­ver­tised it­self to po­ten­tial cus­tomers as aim­ing to become the largest eBay-style un­der­world mar­ket­place, and had as many as 10 salaried em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing a pub­lic re­la­tions man­ager and mod­er­a­tors who ref­er­eed user dis­putes, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

Pros­e­cu­tors said they were able to trace it to Cazes be­cause an email ad­dress he used for pass­word re­cov­ery also turned up on a com­ment site, where he had left a mes­sage in French. When Thai author­i­ties served a search war­rant on his home, they found his lap­top open on the Al­phaBay data cen­tre page, the com­plaint said.

Euro­pean and Amer­i­can law en­force­ment author­i­ties then con­ducted an elab­o­rate op­er­a­tion de­signed to fool Al­phaBay users into re­veal­ing them­selves.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors shut down Al­phaBay in a way that was de­lib­er­ately crafted to look like a heist. They hoped that users would think the site’s ad­min­is­tra­tor had ab­sconded with their money and dis­ap­peared - a com­mon haz­ard on the dark web - and that they would take their busi­ness else­where.

In par­tic­u­lar, in­ves­ti­ga­tors hoped that Al­phaBay cus­tomers would switch to us­ing an­other large and no­to­ri­ous black mar­ket site called Hansa - now in the se­cret con­trol of the Dutch Na­tional Po­lice.

When Al­phaBay’s con­tra­band busi­ness started turn­ing up on Hansa, Dutch po­lice were ly­ing in wait. They used Hansa as a front for col­lect­ing ev­i­dence for a cou­ple of weeks be­fore it too was shut down.

Cazes had been in­dicted on rack­e­teer­ing, nar­cotics and iden­tity theft-re­lated charges. US fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors this week filed a civil for­fei­ture com­plaint against Cazes and his wife’s as­sets. These in­clude a Lam­borgh­ini Aven­ta­dor sports car, con­do­mini­ums and homes around the world, as well as a ho­tel in Thai­land.

Cazes also had mil­lions of dol­lars in cryp­tocur­rency, which has been seized by fed­eral author­i­ties.

Al­phaBay was chiefly used for il­le­gal nar­cotics sales, Hor­wood said, al­though it also served pur­vey­ors of il­le­gal weapons and iden­tity thieves.

Stolen credit card num­bers, hack­ing tools and toxic chem­i­cals, for ex­am­ple, were among the goods be­ing sold.

Al­phaBay also pro­vided users with ways to mask trans­fers of dig­i­tal cur­rency pay­ments, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral in­dict­ment nam­ing Cazes.

Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cials said an Al­phaBay staff mem­ber had once claimed that the site served 40,000 ven­dors and more than 200,000 users.

They quoted US At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions call­ing the bust ‘‘likely one of the most im­por­tant crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the year’’ and stat­ing: ‘‘The dark net is not a place to hide.’’

In ad­di­tion to Europol, Dutch and Thai po­lice, Lithua­nian, Cana­dian, French and Bri­tish author­i­ties also took part in the op­er­a­tion. – LA Times

PHO­TOS: REUTERS

FBI Act­ing Di­rec­tor An­drew McCabe, right, and US At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jess Ses­sions an­nounce the take­down of the dark web mar­ket­place Al­phaBay, at the US Jus­tice De­part­ment in Washington, DC.

Al­phaBay users have seen this screen in­stead since the site was shut down by the US Jus­tice De­part­ment.

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