The largest marketplace on the Darknet has been shut down as a result of one the most sophisticated and coordinated efforts to date on the part of law enforcement across the globe.
The AlphaBay marketplace is where here hundreds of thousands of criminals anonymously bought and sold drugs, weapons, hacking tools, stolen identities, and a host of other illegal goods and services.
In early July, multiple computer servers used by AlphaBay were seized worldwide, and the site’s creator and administrator–a 25-year-old Canadian citizen living in Thailand–was arrested.
AlphaBay operated for more than two years and had transactions exceeding $1-billion in Bitcoin and other digital currencies.
The site, which operated on the anonymous Tor network, was a source of heroin and fentanyl, and sales originating from AlphaBay have been linked to multiple overdose deaths in the US.
“This was a landmark operation,” says FBI acting director Andrew McCabe. “We’re talking about multiple servers in different countries, hundreds of millions in cryptocurrency, and a Darknet drug trade that spanned the globe.”
A dedicated team of FBI agents, intelligence analysts, and support personnel worked alongside domestic and international law enforcement partners to shut down the site and stop the flow of illegal goods.
“AlphaBay was truly a global site,” says special agent Nicholas Phirippidis, one of the FBI investigators. “Vendors were shipping illegal items from places all over the world to places all over the world.”
The website, an outgrowth of earlier dark market sites like Silk Road – but much larger – went online in December 2014. It took about six months for the underground marketplace to pick up momentum, Phirippidis says, “but after that it grew exponentially”.
AlphaBay reported that it serviced more than 200 000 users and 40 000 vendors. Around the time of takedown, the site had more than 250 000 listings for illegal drugs and toxic chemicals, and more than 100 000 listings for stolen and fraudulent identification documents, counterfeit goods, malware and other computer hacking tools, firearms, and fraudulent services.
By comparison, the Silk Road dark market – the largest such enterprise of its kind before it was shut down in 2013 – had approximately 14 000 listings.
The operation to seize AlphaBay’s servers was led by the FBI and involved the cooperative efforts of law enforcement agencies in Thailand, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Canada, the UK and France, along with the European law enforcement agency Europol.
“Conservatively, several hundred investigations across the globe were being conducted at the same time as a result of AlphaBay’s illegal activities,” Phirippidis says. “It really took an all-hands effort among law enforcement worldwide to deconflict and protect those ongoing investigations.”
US law enforcement also worked with numerous foreign partners to freeze and preserve millions of dollars in cryptocurrency representing the proceeds of AlphaBay’s illegal activities. Those funds will be the subject of forfeiture actions.
AlphaBay’s creator and administrator, Alexandre Cazes – who went by the names Alpha02 and Admin online – was arrested by Thai authorities on behalf of the US on July 5, 2017. A week later, Cazes apparently took his own life while in custody in Thailand.
The operation to seize AlphaBay coincided with efforts by Dutch law enforcement to shut down the Hansa Market, another prominent Darknet marketplace that was used to facilitate the sale of illegal drugs, malware, and other illegal services.
After AlphaBay’s shutdown, criminal users and vendors flocked to Hansa Market, where they believed their identities would be masked.
“Taking down two major dark sites at once is considerable, and it took a lot of effort, a lot of expertise and teamwork,” says the FBI’s McCabe. “As this level of teamwork and coordination shows, we will go to the ends of the earth to find these people and to stop them.”