‘Dark web’ sites shut down by sting
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