How the Biggest Online Black Market, AlphaBay, Was Shut Down
The Justice Department said on Thursday that the largest online black market, known as AlphaBay, was shut down this month after the authorities arrested a Canadian man living in Thailand who had been running the site.
AlphaBay was a successor to the first and most famous market operating on the so-called dark net, Silk Road, which the authorities took down in October 2013.
AlphaBay grew into a business with 200,000 users and 40,000 vendors — or 10 times the size of Silk Road — the Justice Department said on Thursday.
It has recently come under scrutiny because of the many vendors on the site selling synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, which play a central role in the nationwide overdose epidemic.
The authorities said 122 vendors had been advertising fentanyl on the site. The sale of such drugs on AlphaBay was detailed in a front-page article in The New York Times last month.
“This is likely one of the most important criminal investigations of this entire year, I have no doubt about that,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a news conference on Thursday. “Most of this activity was for illegal drugs, pouring fuel on the fire of the national illegal drug epidemic.”
AlphaBay went down in early July, prompting speculation that it had been seized by law enforcement authorities.
The man said to be the founder and leading operator of the site, Alexandre Cazes, was arrested at his home in Bangkok on July 5, officials said on Thursday.
Mr. Cazes, originally from Canada, had his laptop open and was logged in to AlphaBay at the time of his arrest, allowing the authorities to gain access to all of AlphaBay’s hidden servers and financial accounts, according to legal documents unsealed on Thursday.
Mr. Cazes committed suicide in his jail cell shortly after he was arrested, the authorities said on Thursday. He was 25 years old.
Access to AlphaBay ceased at the same time as Mr. Cazes’s arrest, but the authorities did not immediately take credit for the operation, and some AlphaBay administrators said they were working to get the site back up.
Mr. Cazes began working on AlphaBay in the summer of 2013, before Silk Road was taken down, and brought it online in December 2013, an indictment unsealed on Thursday said. Mr. Cazes had help from about 10 deputies, who administered the site and resolved disputes, the documents said.
The AlphaBay takedown involved officials from six countries and Europol.
In addition, Dutch authorities just took down another leading dark net marketplace, known as Hansa Market, the Justice Department said on Thursday. Hansa Market was open earlier this week and announced that it was planning to ban fentanyl from the site.
The authorities have moved quickly to seize Mr. Cazes’ significant assets, including properties in Antigua, Cyprus and Thailand; 10 vehicles, including a Lamborghini and a Porsche; and financial assets of about $18 million.
Some of Mr. Cazes’ money was in the virtual currencies used on AlphaBay, including Bitcoin, Ether and Monero. He also had bank accounts in Liechtenstein, Thailand and Cyprus.
Dark net sites are reached with special browsers that obscure the location and identity of the user and the server, making it hard for officials to locate and shut down sites.
Officials said they had found Mr. Cazes because he posted his personal email address, Pimp_Alex_91@hotmail.com, in some early messages from AlphaBay.
By NATHANIEL POPPER and REBECCA R. RUIZ