AlphaBay: How seven countries worked together to take down the biggest online black market for drugs

© UNODC

Have you ever heard about the “dark web”? What about AlphaBay? AlphaBay was launched by a Canadian citizen, Alexander Cazes, in December 2014, and became one of the largest “dark web” marketplaces designed to enable users to buy and sell illegal goods, including controlled substances, stolen and fraudulent identification documents and access devices, counterfeit goods, malware and other computer hacking tools, firearms, and toxic chemicals.

At its peak, AlphaBay was used by thousands of vendors to distribute controlled substances and other illegal goods and services to more 200,000 buyers throughout the world, and to launder hundreds of millions of dollars deriving from these illegal transactions. It was considered the biggest online black market for drugs, being between five and ten times the size of the Silk Road dark web marketplace at its peak.

In July 2017, police in the US and Europe, including the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Europol and the Dutch National Police, partnered to take down the site. AlphaBay’s servers were seized with the help of authorities in Thailand, Lithuania, Canada, the United Kingdom and France. The operation included the arrest of suspected AlphaBay founder Alexandre Cazes on 5 July, detained on behalf of the US in Thailand. He was held by the Royal Thai Police for approximately seven days before apparently committing suicide while in custody on 12 July 2017. On 19 July 2017, U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of California filed a civil forfeiture complaint against Mr. Cazes and his wife.

The case of AlphaBay shows how criminal groups are organizing online, including on the dark web, to commit a variety of serious crimes. In addition to facilitation of cyber-dependent crimes such as distribution of malware tools and computer hacking, dark web marketplaces have been used to facilitate a wide array of cyber-enabled crimes, including drug trafficking, firearm trafficking, money laundering, credit card fraud and identity theft. Tools like the dark web present opportunities for people like Alexandre Cazes to run criminal enterprises from behind a keyboard in one country while facilitating the movements of illicit goods and services from one corner of the globe to the other.

The global nature of this type of crime requires a level of cooperation amongst law enforcement agencies that is both well organized and timely. The takedown of AlphaBay was the result of effective cooperation between at least 11 agencies from six different countries.

The takedown of AlphaBay, along with the takeover of the dark web marketplace Hansa Market in a related operation, damaged user trust in the dark web, which is necessary for dark web marketplaces to operate.

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