The World’s ‘Largest Illegal Darknet Marketplace’ has Been Shut Down

January 13, 2021 Off By Gavin Butler

The primary operator behind DarkMarket, a website that prosecutors have described as "probably the largest illegal marketplace on the Darknet", has been arrested in Germany.

Authorities apprehended the 34-year-old Australian man during a raid in the south-western city of Koblenz over the weekend. The website was shut down and the server was turned off on Monday. 

DarkMarket, which had nearly 500,000 users and more than 2,400 vendors, allowed anyone with a Tor browser and some cryptocurrency to buy and sell drugs, forged money, forged or stolen credit cards, anonymous SIM cards and malware. The site had processed more than 320,000 transactions, with some $170 million USD worth of Bitcoin and Monero cryptocurrencies having been exchanged.

DarkMarket’s demise involved a months-long international law enforcement operation, which saw German investigators collaborating with US, Australian, British, Danish, Swiss, Ukrainian and Moldovan authorities. The FBI, DEA narcotics and IRS from the US, along with police forces from the other countries involved all played a “coordinating role”, according to investigators

More than 20 servers in Moldova and Ukraine were also seized, with police hoping to acquire further information about other participants in the marketplace. A judge ordered the Australian man to be held in custody pending possible charges, but at the time of writing he had not given any information to investigators.

This is the not the first time German authorities have successfully busted the operator of an illegal online platform or service. In 2019, police stormed a bunker hosting a number of illegal darknet platforms in the quiet German town of Traben-Trarbach, near the Luxembourgian border. 

The 5,000-square-meter bunker, which was fitted with iron doors and went five floors underground, secretly housed a so-called "bulletproof hosting" service provider: that is, a service that provides IT infrastructure to protect online criminal activity from government authorities. In that raid, police arrested 13 people between the ages of 20 and 59, including the ringleader of the operation: a 59-year-old Dutch man who was living inside the bunker.

Still, authorities have taken down a major player with DarkMarket, which was heralded as the first open source, decentralized trading platform on the darknet—one of the first to successfully integrate BitCoin as its central currency—following its launch in 2014. In the early days, this game-changing marketplace model was touted as “a Silk Road the FBI can never seize”. 

That notion was convincingly debunked this week. But as DarkMarket’s original founders pointed out to VICE back in 2014, it is also just one shopfront in a much larger online shadow economy: a growing flood of encrypted, decentralised, open source websites that have at least the potential to operate free from government control.

“[The] nice thing is now it can't be stopped,” said Damian Cutillo, who created DarkMarket alongside William Swanson and Amir Taaki. “Once the idea is free, it's kind of hard to put it back in the box.”

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