‘Dark Net’ site was major source of fentanyl and heroin, linked to overdose deaths, and used by hundreds of thousands of people to buy and sell illegal goods and services anonymously over the Internet
WASHINGTON: The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday announced the seizure of the largest criminal marketplace on the Internet, AlphaBay, which operated for over two years on the dark web and was used to sell deadly illegal drugs, stolen and fraudulent identification documents and access devices, counterfeit goods, malware and other computer hacking tools, firearms, and toxic chemicals throughout the world. The international operation to seize AlphaBay’s infrastructure was led by the United States and involved cooperation and efforts by law enforcement authorities in Thailand, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France, as well as the European law enforcement agency Europol.
On July 5, Alexandre Cazes aka Alpha02 and Admin, 25, a Canadian citizen residing in Thailand, was arrested by Thai authorities on behalf of the United States for his role as the creator and administrator of AlphaBay. On July 12, Cazes apparently took his own life while in custody in Thailand. Cazes was charged in an indictment (1:17-CR-00144-LJO), filed in the Eastern District of California on June 1, with one count of conspiracy to engage in racketeering, one count of conspiracy to distribute narcotics, six counts of distribution of narcotics, one count of conspiracy to commit identity theft, four counts of unlawful transfer of false identification documents, one count of conspiracy to commit access device fraud, one count of trafficking in device making equipment, and one count of money laundering conspiracy. Law enforcement authorities in the United States worked with numerous foreign partners to freeze and preserve millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrencies that were the subject of forfeiture counts in the indictment, and that represent the proceeds of the AlphaBay organization’s illegal activities.
On July 19, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California filed a civil forfeiture complaint against Alexandre Cazes and his wife’s assets located throughout the world, including in Thailand, Cyprus, Lichtenstein, and Antigua and Barbuda. Cazes and his wife amassed numerous high value assets, including luxury vehicles, residences and a hotel in Thailand. Cazes also possessed millions of dollars in cryptocurrency, which has been seized by the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
According to publicly available information on AlphaBay prior to its takedown, one AlphaBay staff member claimed that it serviced over 200,000 users and 40,000 vendors. Around the time of takedown, there were over 250,000 listings for illegal drugs and toxic chemicals on AlphaBay, and over 100,000 listings for stolen and fraudulent identification documents and access devices, counterfeit goods, malware and other computer hacking tools, firearms and fraudulent services. Comparatively, the Silk Road dark web marketplace, which was seized by law enforcement in November 2013, had reportedly approximately 14,000 listings for illicit goods and services at the time of seizure and was the largest dark web marketplace at the time.
“This is likely one of the most important criminal investigations of the year – taking down the largest dark net marketplace in history,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “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.”
“Transnational organized crime poses a serious threat to our national and economic security,” said Acting Director Andrew McCabe of the FBI. “Whether they operate in broad daylight or on the dark net, we will never stop working to find and stop these criminal syndicates. We want to thank our international partners and those at the Department of Justice, the DEA and the IRS-CI for their hard work in demonstrating what we can do when we stand together.”
“The so-called anonymity of the dark web is illusory,” said Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg of the DEA. “We will find and prosecute drug traffickers who set up shop there, and this case is a great example of our commitment to doing exactly that. More to come.”
“AlphaBay was the world’s largest underground marketplace of the dark net, providing an avenue for criminals to conduct business anonymously and without repercussions,” said Chief Don Fort of IRS-CI. “Working with our law enforcement partners – both domestically and abroad – IRS-CI used its unique financial and cyber expertise to help shine a bright light on the accounts and customers of this shadowy black marketplace, and we intend to continue pursuing these kinds of criminals no matter where they hide.”
“This ranks as one of the most successful coordinated takedowns against cybercrime in recent years,” said Executive Director Rob Wainwright of Europol. “Concerted action by law enforcement authorities in the United States and Europe, with the support of Europol, has delivered a massive blow to the underground criminal economy and sends a clear message that the dark web is not a safe area for criminals. I pay tribute to the excellent work of the United States and European authorities for the imaginative and resourceful way they combined their efforts in this case.”
AlphaBay operated as a hidden service on the “Tor” network, and utilized cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, Monero and Ethereum in order to hide the locations of its underlying servers and the identities of its administrators, moderators, and users. Based on law enforcement’s investigation of AlphaBay, authorities believe the site was also used to launder hundreds of millions of dollars deriving from illegal transactions on the website.
An investigation conducted by FBI Atlanta and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Georgia identified an AlphaBay staffer living in the United States. That investigation is ongoing.
The investigation into AlphaBay revealed that numerous vendors sold fentanyl and heroin, and there have been multiple overdose deaths across the country attributed to purchases on the site.
According to a complaint affidavit filed in the District of South Carolina against Theodore Vitality Khleborod and Ana Milena Barrero, an investigation into an overdose death on February 16, in Portland, Oregon, involving U-47700, a synthetic opioid, revealed that the drugs were purchased on AlphaBay from Khelborod and Barrero. According to another complaint affidavit filed in the Middle District of Florida against Jeremy Achey, an investigation into a fentanyl overdose death in Orange County, Florida, on February 27, revealed that the lethal substance was purchased on AlphaBay from Achey.
Charges contained in an indictment and/or complaint are merely allegations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
This operation to seize the AlphaBay site coincides with efforts by Dutch law enforcement to investigate and take down the Hansa Market, another prominent dark web market. Like AlphaBay, Hansa Market was used to facilitate the sale of illegal drugs, toxic chemicals, malware, counterfeit identification documents, and illegal services. The administrators of Hansa Market, along with its thousands of vendors and users, also attempted to mask their identities to avoid prosecution through the use of Tor and digital currency.