How the US demolished the world’s largest dark web drug marketplace

How the US demolished the world’s largest dark web drug marketplace
Credit: United States Department of Justice

Earlier this month, we heard that AlphaBay – a marketplace for illegal drugs and falsified documents on the dark web – was facing a major outage, and it was believed that the incident was tied to plans of stealing users’ funds and vanishing into thin air.

Now, the story has taken another dramatic turn. The US Department of Justice announced today that it’s now shut down AlphaBay, following the arrest and suicide of the marketplace’s creator and administrator, Alexandre Cazes.

That’s a huge blow to the 200,000-odd dealers and consumers of drugs, hacking tools, stolen ID documents and firearms who used to frequent the marketplace from around the globe. It’s believed to be about 20 times bigger than the infamous Silk Road network, if you go by the number of transactions conducted on the site.

26-year-old Cazes is said to have been in possession of over $23 million in assets, including real estate, luxury vehicles and cryptocurrency. His undoing: using a traceable Hotmail address ([email protected]) that was listed in email headers included in messages sent to users who forgot their passwords. That address was tied to numerous online accounts, including PayPal accounts, discovered in connection with AlphaBay.

A former web developer, Cazes maintained a front company called EBX Technologies in order to justify his banking transactions. EBX itself didn’t seem to conduct any business, and its site hadn’t been updated since 2015.

Cazes was arrested in Thailand on July 5, the same day that AlphaBay experienced an outage. He subsequently committed suicide on July 12 in a prison there.

The mission to take down AlphaBay was called Operation Bayonet, and saw the US partner with the National Dutch Police to take down a second dark web drug marketplace, Hansa.

Speaking in connection with the AlphaBay announcement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed it to be a victory for the DoJ and a warning to dark web racketeers:

This is likely one of the most important criminal investigations of the year – taking down the largest dark net marketplace in history. 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. We will use every tool we have to stop criminals from exploiting vulnerable people and sending so many Americans to an early grave. I believe that because of this operation, the American people are safer – safer from the threat of identity fraud and malware, and safer from deadly drugs.

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