Dark web dragnet delivers destruction to AlphaBay and Hansa

20 Jul 2017

Image: YIUCHEUNG/Shutterstock

Dastardly villains of the dark web have no place to run, no place to hide.

Major law enforcement operations involving US agencies such as the DEA and FBI, as well as Europol, and the Dutch and Thai police, have shut down the infrastructure of dark web markets AlphaBay and Hansa.

According to Europol, the marketplaces, considered the successors to the infamous Silk Road, facilitated the criminal economy in trading more than 350,000 illicit goods including drugs, firearms, toxic chemicals and cybercrime malware.

‘The capability of drug traffickers and other serious criminals around the world has taken a serious hit’

Future Human

Europol said that the coordinated action ranks as one of the most sophisticated takedown operations ever seen in the fight against criminal activities online.

AlphaBay, which has been offline since the start of July, is understood to have had a marketplace of more than 21,000 opioid listings and 4,100 fentanyl listings. It is being blamed for the deaths of several Americans, including one 18-year-old.

Peeling an onion, layer by layer

Europol said that the closure of AlphaBay and Hansa will lead to hundreds of new investigations in Europe alone.

“The capability of drug traffickers and other serious criminals around the world has taken a serious hit today after a highly sophisticated joint action in multiple countries,” said Europol executive director Rob Wainwright.

“By acting together on a global basis, the law enforcement community has sent a clear message that we have the means to identify criminality and strike back, even in areas of the dark web. There are more of these operations to come,” he said.

Prior to its takedown, AlphaBay reached more than 200,000 users and 40,000 vendors. It is estimated that $1bn was transacted in the market since its creation in 2014, with transactions made in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

There were more than 250,000 listings for illegal drugs and toxic chemicals on AlphaBay, and more than 100,000 listings for stolen and fraudulent identification documents and access devices, counterfeit goods, malware and other computer hacking tools, firearms and fraudulent services.

Hansa was the third-largest criminal marketplace on the dark web, trading similarly high volumes in illicit drugs and other commodities.

How AlphaBay and Hansa were destroyed

With the help of Bitdefender, an internet security company advising the European Cybercrime Centre, Europol provided Dutch authorities with an investigation lead into Hansa in 2016. Subsequent enquiries located the Hansa market infrastructure in the Netherlands, with follow-up investigations by the Dutch police leading to the arrest of its two administrators in Germany and the seizure of servers in the Netherlands, Germany and Lithuania.

While this was happening, an FBI and DEA-led operation, called Bayonet, was able to identify the creator and administrator of AlphaBay, a Canadian citizen called Alexandre Cazes, seemingly living a luxurious life in Thailand.

He was arrested on 5 July and was later found dead in a Bangkok jail after reportedly taking his own life.

Police in Thailand also seized millions of dollars in assets, three properties and four Lamborghini cars.

“The dark web is growing into a haven of rampant criminality,” warned Dimitris Avramopoulos, European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship.

“This is a threat to our societies and our economies that we can only face together, on a global scale. The takedown of the two largest criminal dark web markets in the world by European and American law enforcement authorities shows the important and necessary result of international cooperation to fight this criminality.

“Our fight against criminal activities online and offline will continue and intensify,” he said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years