On Thursday, July 20, The U.S. Department of Justice confirmed that they pulled the plug on Alphabay, the biggest illegal drug marketplace in internet history. Check out the Q&A below to learn quick facts about the site, its orchestrator and how he got caught:
The US Drug Enforcement Agency, FBI and the Dutch police, with support from the UK, Lithuania and France. The US Department of Justice said the end of Alphabay and its temporary successor, Hansa, marked the end of a “landmark” investigation involving law enforcement worldwide.
Both sites functioned as platforms for the trade of illegal goods including drugs, firearms, illicit chemicals, personal data stolen in hacks and computer viruses. It was designed to be an illegal, eBay-style website where users could leave peer reviews and give feedback on the sellers.
The site’s operation was 16x the size of Silk Road. With 225k illegal listings compared to Silk Road’s 14k, it was the biggest illegal drug marketplace in internet history. The site had 200k members and 40k vendors.
A 25-year-old Canadian citizen named Alexandre Cezes was apparently the founder. After Silk Road was dropped in 2013, AlphaBay filled the void and immediately attracted criminal activity. Cezes was arrested on July 5, 2017 in Thailand on behalf of the US.
According to Europol, the site hosted roughly $1B in criminal transactions, from September 2014 to early July 2017. Visitors paid using digital currencies like Bitcoin.
In December 2016, police found AlphaBay’s apparent creator by tracking his Hotmail email address: Pimp_Alex_91@hotmail.com. He used this address to send out password recovery emails to users.
It was also seen on a French tech troubleshooting site with Cazes’ full name. Investigators followed this lead to his LinkedIn account, where he listed familiar skills like website hosting and cryptography. At this point, police became even more suspicious of his involvement in the case.
All the pieces of the puzzle came together once authorities acquired Cazes’ PayPal records, which listed Pimp_Alex_91@hotmail.com in his contact information. This revealed a direct connection between his payment information and the incriminated address.
AlphaBay’s servers were seized by authorities around the world, including Thailand, Lithuania, Canada, Britain and France. The Dutch National Police took control of Hansa on June 20, seizing servers in Lithuania, the Netherlands and Germany. Investigators explored criminal activities on the marketplace before it was officially shut down on July 24.
The sites operated on the Tor network, which is a software that helps users browse the internet anonymously. It took over two years before authorities discovered his email address while combing through old forums and hidden links.
Narcotics distribution, identity theft, money laundering and related crimes. Investigators said several people died because of drugs sold on the online markets, which included heroin and fentanyl.
He apparently took his life a week after being arrested while in Thai custody. The Department of Justice seized his $23m in assets, including six properties, $8.8m in cryptocurrency and a Lamborghini worth $900k.
It’s very likely; authorities play a never-ending game of whack-a-mole since criminals simply flock to other darknet sites after one goes under. The most popular active darknet market is called “Dream Market.”
Sure, AlphaBay was involved in a category of cybercrime that goes beyond the scope of work for any IT company. Still, it’s important to understand the complexity of this case and realize how robust the dark web has become.
As the internet evolves, cybercrime will only become more prevalent, which is why we need to prevent it from all angles. Shutting down AlphaBay won’t end cybercrime—but it sends a message to cybercriminals letting them know that they can’t hide forever.
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