WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday announced a Justice Department take down of AlphaBay, the largest marketplace on the “dark web” that allowed people to anonymously purchase drugs like fentanyl and heroin.
The Justice Department cooperated with international law enforcement agencies on the takedown, which shuts down a website that had more than 200,000 customers who could browse for illegal drugs and other illicit products like stolen identities and guns.
Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe said Alpha Bay was 10 times the size of the Silk Road, a similar site that the government prominently seized in 2013.
Sessions said the takedown is “the largest dark net marketplace takedown in history” and it comes at the same time as Dutch authorities announced a similar move against Hansa Market, another dark web marketplace.
“This case, pursued by dedicated agents and prosecutors, says you are not safe,” Sessions said at a press conference announcing the takedown. “You cannot hide. We will find you, dismantle your organization and network and we will prosecute you.”
Sessions said the Justice Department has identified “several Americans” who died after overdosing on drugs bought on the AlphaBay marketplace. These deaths include that of 13-year-old Grant Seaver, who lived in Park City, Utah and died after overdosing on a synthetic opioid one of his classmates bought on AlphaBay, Sessions said.
“The ability of these drugs to so instantaneously end these promising lives is a reminder to us of just how incredibly dangerous these synthetic opioids are, especially when they are purchased anonymously from dark places on the internet,” Sessions said.
Users can access the so-called dark web using a special network called a Tor network. This system, as well as administrators’ insistence that customers use digital currency like Bitcoin rather than traditional government-backed money, allows users and administrators alike to buy and sell illicit goods with relative anonymity.
AlphaBay was allegedly run by Alexander Cazes, a 25-year-old Canadian who lived in Thailand. Thai police arrested Cazes earlier this month on behalf of the United States, though Cazes apparently committed suicide while in Thai custody, according to the Justice Department.
Cazes allegedly launched the site in December 2014 and he and other AlphaBay staff members received a cut of every purchase made on the website. The site eventually grew so that it had moderators, scam monitors and even a public relations manager, who posted updates on an internal AlphaBay forum and on Reddit and other public websites, according to the indictment.
AlphaBay ran like a normal online shopping site, allowing users to create login names and passwords and to search by category or name. Instead of browsing categories like clothes or household goods like they would on a traditional shopping site, however, AlphaBay users could scroll through items in categories like “fraud, drugs and chemicals, counterfeit items, weapons” and others, according to the indictment.
Users could rate the more than 40,000 vendors who sold illegal goods on AlphaBay and the site’s administrators had procedures to solve disputes between vendors and buyers, according to the indictment.
The site operated around the world, with staff members living in Bangkok as well as in four counties in California, according to the indictment. The Atlanta office of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia also have identified an AlphaBay staff member living in the United States, an investigation that is still ongoing, according to the Justice Department.
The 24-page indictment charges Cazes with one count each of conspiracy to engage in racketeering, conspiracy to distribute narcotics, conspiracy to commit identity theft, conspiracy to commit access device fraud, trafficking in device making equipment and money laundering conspiracy. The indictment also charged Cazes with six counts of distribution of narcotics and four counts of unlawful transfer of false identification documents.
The Justice Department is also pursuing a forfeiture case against Cazes’ assets, including a 2013 Lamborghini Aventador registered in Bangkok and six properties Cazes and his wife allegedly owned from Thailand to Cyprus, according to a press release.
The forfeiture claim also goes after Cazes’ bank accounts, which include some at traditional banks and others full of Bitcoin and other similar online currencies.
Though the officials who announced the seizure emphasized the importance of removing the largest marketplace on the dark web, they acknowledged that it will do little more than pause the flow of illegal marketplace to the relative secrecy of the dark web.
“We are keenly aware that there will be another AlphaBay,” said Chuck Rosenberg, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency.” But with each investigation we learn more and get better.”