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Largest dark web market closed in massive government takedown

Adios, AlphaBay. US and European law enforcement agencies have slammed shut a booming online trade in drugs, weapons and stolen identities.

hansa

The two largest dark web markets, Hansa (left) and AlphaBay (right), have been shut down.

Europol

Two of the three largest dark web markets are closed for business.

The Department of Justice and Europol announced Thursday that they have shut down AlphaBay and Hansa, two massive marketplaces on the dark web that served hundreds of thousands of customers trying to get their hands on illegal goods online.

While you or I can easily buy groceries, electronics and clothes online, when it comes to finding drugs, weapons and stolen identities, things can get a little more complicated. Merchants of contraband hide out on the dark web, a hidden part of the internet that you can only access through special browsers like Tor. There, buyers and sellers are anonymous, and so is the currency, with most transactions happening through bitcoin.

AlphaBay alone had 200,000 customers and more than 40,000 sellers peddling illegal goods, making it the largest takedown for a dark web marketplace ever. The website had 100,000 listings for sale when the governments took it down. In comparison, Silk Road, one of the most notorious dark web markets, had 14,000 listings when the FBI shut down the site four years ago. Hansa was the third largest dark web market when it shut down.

"I believe that because of this operation, the American people are safer from the threat of identity fraud and malware, and safer from deadly drugs," attorney general Jeff Sessions said at a press conference Thursday. He called the bust one of the "most important criminal cases" of the year.

The website made $1 billion in sales before it was shut down in a joint operation of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Dutch police and Europol. 

"They coordinated a takedown and have punched a big hole in the operating ability of drug traffickers and other serious criminals around the world," Europol director Rob Wainwright said.

Visitors first noticed AlphaBay was down on July 5, when Alexandre Cazes, better known as Alpha02, the website's creator and admin, was arrested in Thailand. On July 12, he was found dead while in custody there, in an apparent suicide. Frequent AlphaBay users were concerned that the shutdown was an "exit scam," in which a market owner takes the money and runs.

"The operation at AlphaBay was well run and sophisticated, and it struck me as highly unlikely that the market would go down as an exit scam with anything other than calculated precision," Emily Wilson, the director of analysis at Terbium Labs said, in an email.

Terbium Labs had been following the dark web for months, specifically in marketplaces like AlphaBay. After the fallout in early July, Wilson said former moderators and well-known users were left in confusion.

After AlphaBay's shutdown, its users flocked to Hansa, increasing the dark market's traffic in eightfold, Wainwright said. Dutch police took over Hansa last month and have been collecting thousands of user's information in an undercover operation.

Wainwright said officers are tracking down Hansa buyers and sellers through their usernames and passwords.

But that's just one chapter in the fight against illegal online transactions. Just as AlphaBay rose and became 10 times larger than Silk Road, FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe predicts there will be another dark web market to fill the void.

"There are some criminals that think of cybercrime as a freebie," McCabe said. "They think they will get away with it because there are too many players and too many countries, they think they will get away with it because the schemes are too complex and because they operate in the shadows."

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