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179 people arrested in the largest special operation against marketplaces in the dark web

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Operation DisrupTor arose from last year’s takeover of a popular underground marketplace called the Wall Street Market.

It is one of the largest operations to date to prevent illegal trading on the dark web, with 179 arrests in six countries; 500 kilograms of drugs were seized ; $6.5 million in cash and cryptocurrencies confiscated. Although it was announced yesterday, Operation Disruptor has its roots in May 3, 2019. On this day, German police took over the Wall Street Market, a popular underground market that has given international authorities everything they need to turn the dark web drug trade around.

It’s unclear how much damage Operation Disruptor will do in the long run, as the dark web drug market tends to recover even after the big bust of marketplaces like Silk Road and AlphaBay. But even if law enforcement is playing an eternal game of cat and mouse, they have at least become extremely adept at throwing punches.

The US operation Disruptor cost dozens of court documents and about 120 arrests. In Ohio, members of a group known as PillCosby were charged with distributing more than a million pills containing fentanyl. Prosecutors in Washington, D.C. alleges that David Brian Pate hid thousands of OxyContin, Xanax and morphine pills inside souvenir maracas. A Nebraska pharmacist allegedly planned to set fire to a local competitor after stealing their stock of opiates for what officials say was his booming drug dealing business.

179 people arrested in the largest special operation against marketplaces in the dark web179 people arrested in the largest special operation against marketplaces in the dark web

Images: DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION

What these cases and the dozens of arrests across Europe have in common is that the investigation is mostly linked to last year’s Wall Street Market disruption. At the time, German authorities arrested the site’s alleged operators and two of its most active sellers. Europol confirmed to WIRED today that they were also able to restore the Wall Street Market internal server, providing investigators with an invaluable set of evidence.

“He provided us with all the information that allowed us to identify those arrested today," says Europol spokeswoman Claire Georges. “We collated the information and then sent out what we call intelligence packages to all interested countries. Basically it’s information or documents where we say, listen, we know that this person in your country has done this, you can start an investigation.’ Claire also says that there will be more arrests ahead.

Even though a package of arrests was announced today, arrests in the US have been going on for the past few months. At a press conference on Tuesday morning, Acting DEA Administrator Timothy Shea specifically named Arden McCann, allegedly known as RCQueen, DRXanax, and other aliases in numerous darknet marketplaces. Arrested earlier this year, McCann allegedly shipped over 10 kilos of fentanyl and over 300,000 counterfeit Xanax pills every month.

"In a way, it’s just the perfect blend of traditional criminal activity of all shapes and sizes, merged with this more sophisticated technology," FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a news conference Tuesday. "But the point of today’s announcement is that no matter where you go to try to make it, or how you try to hide it, we’re coming for you."

It seems to be so. The Wall Street Market takeover is not the first or even the most devastating law enforcement takeover of a shady online retailer. In 2017, the Dutch police took control of Hansa ‘s booming darknet market, and the FBI shut down AlphaBay, an even bigger competitor. While AlphaBay users switched to Hansa, the Dutch authorities spent weeks collecting information about them, including home addresses.

Takedowns and grabs always have a cumulative effect. “These people do not just work in one market, they cover the entire spectrum of the darknet,” Europol says.

In the US, the arrests have come under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Justice’s Joint Opioid and Dark Web Squad, which includes investigators from the FBI and the US Postal Service. The latest J-CODE operation, dubbed Sabotor, resulted in 61 arrests in March 2019.

What remains to be seen is whether drug buyers on the dark web will find new suppliers, especially since Disruptor is targeting individual suppliers rather than entire markets. Still, at the very least, Tuesday’s announcement may give aspiring dark web sellers pause, as it only adds to the law enforcement track record of being able to roam into supposedly anonymous corners of the Internet.

“We have very creative people who are themselves very resourceful within the law and use various tools to catch people who think they can hide on the dark web,” Ray said at a press conference on Tuesday. The FBI director declined to comment on specific techniques.

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