U.S. seizes largest online criminal marketplace

Jul 21 2017

U.S. seizes largest online criminal marketplace

The Department of Justice has taken down what it claims is the largest online marketplace for criminal activity on the ‘dark net.’

On July 20th, the U.S. officially seized control of AlphaBay, a website which offered a marketplace of “illegal drugs, stolen and fraudulent identification documents and access devices, counterfeit goods, malware and other computer hacking tools, firearms, and toxic chemicals,” according to a DoJ press release. AlphaBay operated on what is known as the ‘dark net,’ an online space only accessible through specific software, which is meant to hide illicit activity from authorities.

The website is comparable to Silk Road, another ‘dark net’ marketplace that was shut down by law enforcement in November of 2013. The seizure was part of an international effort to stop the flow of illicit materials emanating from the site, and comes at a time when opioids present an increasingly complex challenge for U.S. law enforcement and addiction treatment providers.

The extent of the marketplace’s reach is difficult to determine, but according to the DoJ, “One AlphaBay staff member claimed that it serviced over 200,000 users and 40,000 vendors. Around the time of takedown, there were over 250,000 listings for illegal drugs and toxic chemicals on AlphaBay, and over 100,000 listings for stolen and fraudulent identification documents and access devices, counterfeit goods, malware and other computer hacking tools, firearms and fraudulent services.”

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it clear he wants harsher punishments for drug traffickers, and touted the seizure as a victory for his “tough on crime” approach.

“Make no mistake, the forces of law and justice face a new challenge from the criminals and transnational criminal organizations who think they can commit their crimes with impunity using the dark net. The dark net is not a place to hide,” Sessions said in a statement. “The Department will continue to find, arrest, prosecute, convict, and incarcerate criminals, drug traffickers and their enablers wherever they are.”

Dismantling a single website won’t do much to quell the larger opioid epidemic in the U.S., and research shows online drug sales actually tripled after the closure of Silk Road. But the situation does speak to an issue many treatment providers have identified as the reason this epidemic is different from previous drug trends. They say technology, particularly social media, has made buying drugs much easier, and much harder to track. They say it’s also made people more mobile and has fueled the stigma surrounding addiction, rather than alleviating it.

With sites like AlphaBay and Silk Road, drugs that used to be trafficked in the streets are now being sold online, creating more access points for clients trying to stay clean. It’s an issue treatment providers are still struggling to cope with as they look to help clients strengthen positive relationships while avoiding potentially dangerous ones.