It's been nearly a week since the world's most popular website for illegal goods vanished abruptly, and now its users—who collectively stand to lose millions of dollars—are giving up hope it will ever return.
The site, AlphaBay, operated for years on the so-called dark web, which can only be accessed by users who employ special software that masks their location and identity. But last Tuesday night, AlphaBay suddenly went dark and has been inaccessible ever since.
While an administrator for the site suggested last week the outage was due to technical problems, many AlphaBay users are coming to the conclusion that its disappearance is due to an "exit scam." This is a common hustle in which the operators of an illicit website use the pretext of a hacking incident or technical problems to abscond with customer accounts.
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The funds in the accounts represent customer payments, as well as money held in escrow while customers await their shipment of drugs or other illegal products like guns or counterfeit passports. The funds are typically held in the digital currency bitcoin. According to tech news site the Verge, bitcoin transaction records show AlphaBay's shutdown coincided with a series of sudden withdrawals of $4 million from small accounts—suggesting the site owners pocketed their customers' bitcoins.
As AlphaBay remains dark, online discussion at online message board Reddit and elsewhere reflect rage and frustration among its customers. As this remark on Twitter shows, some are threatening to retaliate against AlphaBay by publishing the identities of its operators on the open Internet:
Meanwhile, opportunists have also popped up who are purporting to offer a means for AlphaBay users to get into the site, but whose real purpose is to steal information about the user:
For now, though, there is still no definite proof that AlphaBay's disappearance is related to an exit scam. Some commenters are pointing to another explanation based on reports of arrests in Canada and Thailand—this is possible evidence police seized the site's servers and forced it offline. In a closely-read message thread on Reddit, one commenter warned users to be cautious if the site does reappear, suggesting law enforcement may relaunch AlphaBay in the hopes of collecting information about its customers.
If AlphaBay is indeed finished, it will mark the end of the most notorious dark web site since the Silk Road, whose founder, Ross Ulbricht (known online as "Dread Pirate Roberts"), is now serving a life sentence after his conviction in 2015 for drug-related crimes. Ulbricht and others have defended the online drug markets as a libertarian ideal, while many others say the sites create a trail of misery in the form of overdose deaths.