On Thursday morning, the Department of Justice, Europol, and Dutch authorities announced a coordinated law enforcement takedown of AlphaBay and Hansa Market, two of the three largest dark web marketplaces used to buy and sell illicit goods and services.
AlphaBay has been offline since July 5, the same day that founder Alexander Cazes was arrested in Bangkok and a week before his apparent suicide. With the dark web’s most popular marketplace suddenly unavailable, many users turned to Hansa, a market that touted its security-focused approach. Unfortunately for those users, Dutch law enforcement had seized control of Hansa on June 20 following the arrest of two administrators in Germany, and law enforcement has been covertly monitoring the market’s activity over the past month.
As Europol noted, this joint effort against the two markets helped to “magnify the disruptive impact” of the operation.
“It meant the Dutch police could identify and disrupt the regular criminal activity on Hansa but then also sweep up all those new users displaced from AlphaBay who were looking for a new trading platform,” Europol wrote in its press release. “In fact they flocked to Hansa in their droves, with an eight-fold increase in the number of new members of Hansa recorded immediately following the shutdown of AlphaBay.”
With both AlphaBay and Hansa Market now out of the picture, Dream Market is the reigning leader, according to SurfWatch Labs’ threat intelligence data.
How Cazes was Caught and AlphaBay Taken Down
Cazes, who was also known as “Alpha02” or “Admin” on the market, founded AlphaBay in 2014 and ran the site along with a team of eight to 10 individuals, according the unsealed indictment. Over the two-and-a-half-year period the site was operational, AlphaBay grew to become the largest dark web market in history and collected tens of millions of dollars in commissions.
However, Cazes made numerous mistakes while running AlphaBay that other malicious actors will be paying close attention to, said SurfWatch Labs chief security strategist Adam Meyer.
“As I read the indictment detailing the AlphaBay takedown in particular, I see a list of mistakes being disclosed by the operators of the market that will certainly be scrutinized by criminal elements in order to ensure they are not repeated in future efforts,” Meyer said. “In similar ways that malware instances are shared, tweaked and reused, those who operate illegal marketplaces — or have the desire to due to its profitability — are certainly taking detailed notes for future efforts.”
As the court documents noted:
- Cazes’ personal email, “Pimp_Alex_91@hotmail.com,” was included in the header of an AlphaBay welcome email that was sent to new users in December 2014. The email was also included in the header of AlphaBay password recovery emails sent in late 2014.
- Law enforcement then discovered the email address belonged to a Canadian-born man named Alexandre Cazes with a birthdate of October 19, 1991.
- A December 2008 post on the online tech forum “http://www.commentcamarche.com” was subsequently found in which a user going by the name “Alpha02” posted information in French on how to properly remove a virus from a digital photo. That post included both the name “Alexandre Cazes” and the email “Pimp_Alex_91@hotmail.com.”
- The email addresses was also tied to a PayPal account registered in Cazes’ name.
- When Cazes was arrested, law enforcement discovered his laptop open and in an unencrypted state, as well as logged into the server that hosted the AlphaBay site. While searching the computer they found several open text files with passwords for the AlphaBay site and servers, which allowed law enforcement to seize all the information and cryptocurrency on those servers.
At the time of his arrest, a financial statement on Cazes’ computer put his net worth at $23,033,975. Cazes attempted to justify his wealth through a front company called EBX Technologies, but the indictment noted that the company’s website “is barely functional” and that the company’s bank records show “little to no business income or banking activity.”
What’s Next for the Dark Web?
Dark web market takedowns are significant, Meyer said, but they’re also a part of the now-established cycle of popular markets being disrupted by law enforcement or exit scams only to have new markets rise in their absence.
“While the law enforcement take down of AlphaBay and Hansa are certainly heavily impactful to underground merchants, rest assured new marketplaces will be established and new protocols will be implemented,” Meyer said.
It was just a little over a year ago that the then-number-two most popular market, Nucleus Market, suddenly went offline in an apparent exit scam, helping to bolster both AlphaBay’s and Hansa’s user base. With those two markets now gone, Dream Market has become the temporary king, but that will likely change in the coming months as new markets and new operators step in to fill the void — until the cycle repeats again.