27 September 2023

Switched on: The day law enforcers shone a light on the dark net

Start the conversation

Patrick Howell O’Neill* says law enforcement Agencies from several countries have brought down one of the largest dark net markets of all time.

Police from around the world shut down the biggest active black market on the dark web this month, according to announcements from law enforcement Agencies in the US, Germany and the Netherlands released last week.

Wall Street Market (WSM), as the black market site was known, was the target of a 1.5-year-long multinational investigation.

Three Germans were arrested on 23 April and 24 April inside Germany for their alleged role in creating and administering the site that sold illegal drugs, documents, weapons and data.

“WSM was one of the largest and most voluminous darknet marketplaces of all time,” FBI Special Agent Leroy Shelton wrote in the criminal complaint released last week.

The site is the latest in a years-long line of dark web black markets to fall.

The most famous is Silk Road, an anonymous site that operated from 2011 to 2013 before being shut down in a high-profile FBI investigation that resulted in a double life sentence for Ross Ulbricht, the man convicted of having conceived of and running the market.

Many sites since then have taken the Silk Road model and made it their own — and, as law enforcement made the lucrative sites a priority, almost as many have ended in multinational police busts.

Wall Street Market had 1.15 million customer accounts and 5,400 registered sellers, according to the US Justice Department.

However, don’t take those numbers to be accurate census accounts — users are anonymous, sellers and buyers both often create multiple accounts, and there’s no way to get a realistic count on the number of individuals active on a market such as this.

A better way to understand the scale of a black market like this is to look at the actual money involved.

Last month, Wall Street Market administrators stole around US$11 million (A$15.6 million) from user accounts, authorities say.

“An ‘exit scam’ was allegedly conducted last month when the WSM administrators took all of the virtual currency held in marketplace escrow and user accounts — believed by investigators to be approximately $11 million — and then diverted the money to their own accounts,” the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles said in a statement.

“Exit scams are common among large darknet marketplaces, which typically hold money in escrow while a vendor delivers illicit goods.”

In addition to the three Germans who were arrested, a Brazilian man has been charged with running public relations for the site.

“These two investigations show the importance of law enforcement cooperation at an international level and demonstrate that illegal activity on the dark web is not as anonymous as criminals may think,” Europol’s Executive Director, Catherine De Bolle said in a statement.

The fall of Wall Street Market qualifies as the biggest dark web bust since a US investigation busted AlphaBay market in 2017.

* Patrick Howell O’Neill is a reporter at Gizmodo. He tweets at @HowellONeill.

This article first appeared at www.gizmodo.com.au.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.