Law enforcement agencies in the United States and Europe announced a massive sting operation that took out two of the three biggest websites on the so-called “Dark Web” where people freely bought drugs, guns and other illicit items.
The announcement on Thursday morning said the FBI, Europol, and other agencies had taken down the biggest and most notorious site, AlphaBay, earlier this month and then waited while the AlphaBay users migrated to another underground website called Hansa.
The agencies then took out Hansa, the Dark Web’s third biggest site, seizing its servers and identifying many of its customers. Law enforcement has since turned the home page of both sites into a trophy of sorts, displaying these images:
“This is likely one of the most important criminal investigations of the year – taking down the largest dark net marketplace in history,” said U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a statement that said AlphaBay, on the eve of its shutdown, had over 250,000 listings for drugs and 100,000 more for fake documents and hacking tools.
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Thursday’s news comes after weeks of rampant speculation over the fate of AlphaBay, which suddenly went dark on July 5, triggering fears of a so-called “exit scam” in which the owners of a dark web site abscond with customer funds. The plot thickened further after one of the site’s operators hanged himself in Thai prison after AlphaBay went down.
It now turns out the operator, a Canadian named Alexandre Cazes, had been arrested as part of a larger operation to take down the dark web sites.
A Europol press release explains how law enforcement surreptitiously took control over the smaller site, Hansa, and then used it to ensnare AlphaBay customers once the latter site went down:
[The operation] involved taking covert control of Hansa under Dutch judicial authority a month ago, which allowed Dutch police to monitor the activity of users without their knowledge, and then shutting down AlphaBay during the same period. It meant the Dutch police could identify and disrupt the regular criminal activity on Hansa but then also sweep up all those new users displaced from AlphaBay who were looking for a new trading platform.
The FBI also described Cazes as the main suspect and said he had been indicted on multiple charges related to drugs and other crimes in California federal court.
The law enforcement agencies added they has seized millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrencies, and also grabbed control of servers in Canada and the Netherlands.
“There are more of these operations to come,” a Europol official stated.
The seizure of AlphaBay and Hansa are by far the biggest law enforcement action against dark web sites since the FBI took out the notorious Silk Road site in 2013. Its owner, Ross Ulbricht—a.k.a. The Dread Pirate Roberts—is now serving life in prison.