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International Police Operation Takes Down World’s Largest Online Black Market

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter

Multiple police agencies from across the globe dealt a huge blow to the online criminal black market by shutting down two major dark websites, including the notorious AlphaBay, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday.

Thai police, operating in conjunction with U.S., Europol and other law enforcement agencies, arrested AlphaBay founder and administrator Alexandre Cazes on July 5. The site allowed users to buy a variety of drugs, illegal weapons, malware and stolen and forged documents. It had more than 200,000 users and 40,000 vendors before its seizure, according to an AlphaBay staff member. It boasted more than 250,000 listings for illegal drugs and more than 100,000 listing for stolen and fake documents around the time it was shut down.

“This is likely one of the most important criminal investigations of the year – taking down the largest dark net marketplace in history,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “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.”

AlphaBay was created in July 2014 and quickly grew to become the largest online black market in history. The site allowed users to browse and purchase all kinds of illegal goods and services, which could then be shipped to their homes, similar to traditional e-commerce sites like Amazon. It used cryptocurrencies like bitcoin to facilitate transactions in order to maintain anonymity of both users and sellers. AlphaBay would take a cut of all transactions made through its site, netting Cazes and his employees “tens of millions of dollars” in commissions, according to the Department of Justice’s criminal complaint. Authorities estimated that the site facilitated at least $1 billion in transactions.

AlphaBay required users to use Tor in order to add further anonymity to transactions. Tor is a program which essentially allows users to maintain a high degree of anonymity on the internet and the “Dark Web,” a section of the internet which can only be accessed through special software or protocols. The U.S. government created Tor in order to communicate with intelligence assets across the globe, but it later became a popular tool for cyber criminals. AlphaBay required users to use Tor in an effort to maintain anonymity.

Silk Road, established in February 2011, was the first site to pioneer the dark web marketplace, becoming infamous as a platform where users could purchase anything from rare illicit drugs to assassinations. It was subsequently shut down in November 2013 with only 14,000 listings, making its orders of magnitude smaller than AlphaBay.

The international operation also shut down Hansa, the third most popular digital black market. Its transaction volume was similar to that of AlphaBay’s, according to Europol.

U.S. officials acknowledged that another dark website may be created to replace AlphaBay, but they noted that law enforcement will apply what they have learned in future police actions against illegal dark web markets.

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