NOT SINCE THE days of the now-legendary Silk Road has a single site dominated the dark web's black market as completely, and for as long, as the online bazaar known as AlphaBay. And with the news that the site has been torn down by a law enforcement raid—and one of its leaders found dead in a Thai prison—the dark web drug trade has fallen into a temporary state of chaos.
About a week ago AlphaBay, the dark web's largest contraband marketplace, went mysteriously offline. Rumors swirled that it had run off with its customers' money, or was down for maintenance. Then on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that a law enforcement operation spanning threes countries shuttered the site, with Canadian police seizing its servers in Quebec, and US officials seeking the extradition of one of its alleged administrators, Alexandre Cazes, to the United States. Cazes was later found hanging in a Bangkok jail cell in an apparent suicide.
Details around the AlphaBay takedown remain murky. But the news that authorities had permanently wiped it off the web has sent its buyers and sellers scrambling to other outlets for their business, particularly the site's booming trade in narcotics. So far, they've found mostly inhospitable, unstable alternatives.
"It’s been really chaotic," says Nicolas Christin, a professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon who has closely tracked the darknet for years. He points to AlphaBay's unprecedented size for a darknet market, estimating that its nearly 300,000 listings of drugs, stolen credit cards, and other contraband brought in—as a conservative estimate—between $600,000 and $800,000 a day in revenue. "When you have a site like AlphaBay going down, it puts a lot of stress on the other players. It’s stress-testing their infrastructures."
According to posts on dark web forums and Reddit's discussion pages devoted to darknet markets, most of AlphaBay's users seemed to initially seek a new home at Hansa, a black market a site with more than 24,000 drug listings. But by Thursday, Hansa had closed its doors to new business. "Due to the influx of Alphabay refugees we are dealing with technical issues," read a message on the site. "We have set a stop on new registrations until further notice."
Other displaced users went to Dream Market, an older, less reliable site than Hansa, but one with a larger drug catalog. Dream Market seemed to be down for much of Thursday, though, likely struggling with the same influx of customers as Hansa. Some dark web users found that their old logins on the Dream Market weren't working. Sites like AlphaBay, Hansa, and Dream Market, after all, aren't normal websites, but so-called "hidden services" designed to be accessed only with the anonymity software Tor, and thus more technically demanding than traditional websites to host.
Forum posts complained that scammers had taken advantage of Dream Market's instability, posting phishing links to lure migrating users to spoofed sites that steal their credentials, or the bitcoins they use for black-market transactions. And other posters lamented the lower quality and spottier credibility of Dream Market's sellers. One new Dream Market user who'd arrived from AlphaBay even complained on Reddit that he'd found shards of plastic and glass in his marijuana. "What the fuck is the market coming to," another poster responded. "To many fakes and scams going on the market is going down hill. [sic]"
Other users noted that it still wasn't clear how AlphaBay had been seized, given that its use of Tor and Bitcoin were meant to shield buyers, sellers, and admins from identification. For months, an extortionist had reportedly threatened to reveal the identity of one AlphaBay administrator, and even released identifying information about him after AlphaBay's proctors sent him or her a hush-money payment. But dark web practitioners still have vague fears that law enforcement agencies found a method of breaking AlphaBay's Tor protection–which potentially means sites like Dream Market and Hansa are vulnerable too. "It is frankly frightening," one user wrote in response to news of the AlphaBay takedown.
A Temporary Setback
Even so, the chaos in the wake of AlphaBet's disappearance shouldn't deal a death blow to the dark web's vibrant drug trade, or even cause much more than a temporary shakeup, says Carnegie Mellon's Christin. He points to prior dark web crises like the 2013 takedown of the Silk Road, the bust of the Silk Road's sequel site in late 2014, or the so-called "exit scam" pulled by the dark web market Evolution in 2015, in which its administrators abruptly absconded with their patrons' bitcoins.
Each time, Christin points out, the dark web's overall business took a temporary dive, but came roaring back more quickly after those setbacks and continued to grow as a whole. AlphaBay, for example, had more than 20 times as many product listings as the original Silk Road. (Some research has found that even bad news about the dark web markets only attracts more users to them.) And AlphaBay's buyers and customers will eventually find a new home. "This feels like deja vu to some extent," Christin says. AlphaBay's takedown "may give people pause. But will it scare people away? I doubt it."
"Seasoned users expected this," adds Isak Ladegaard, a sociological researcher at Boston College. He says many dark web drug vendors have learned to sell across multiple different marketplaces to diversify their risk. "Market 'shocks' aren't that shocking anymore."
In the meantime, the dark web's current chaos churns on. Past takedowns have led to more market sites going permanently offline in a ripple effect, as they're overwhelmed by new users and unexpected visibility. But the anonymous market for addictive drugs and other contraband isn't slackening, says Christin, and so neither will the dark web's brisk business.
"There’s a demand," he says. "It's just a question of who’s going to fulfill the supply."
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Law Enforcement Takes Down Dark Market Alphabay