BERLIN: A German-led police sting has taken down the “world’s largest” darknet marketplace, whose Australian alleged operator used it to facilitate the sale of drugs, stolen credit card data and malware, prosecutors said on Tuesday.
At the time of its closure, DarkMarket had nearly 500,000 users and more than 2,400 vendors worldwide, as the coronavirus pandemic leads much of the street trade in narcotics to go online.
Police in the northern city of Oldenburg “were able to arrest the alleged operator of the suspected world’s largest illegal marketplace on the darknet, the DarkMarket, at the weekend,” prosecutors said in a statement.
“Investigators were able to shut down the marketplace and turn off the server on Monday,” they added, calling it the culmination of a months-long international law enforcement operation.
A total of at least 320,000 transactions were carried out via the marketplace, with more than 4,650 bitcoin and 12,800 monero — two of the most common cryptocurrencies — changing hands, prosecutors said.
At current exchange rates, that represented turnover valued at 140 million euros ($170 million).
The marketplace offered for sale “all kinds of drugs” as well as “counterfeit money, stolen and fake credit card data, anonymous SIM cards, malware and much more”.
A 34-year-old Australian national believed to be the DarkMarket operator was arrested near the German-Danish border, just as more than 20 servers it used in Moldova and Ukraine were seized.
“Investigators expect to use the data saved there to launch new probes against the moderators, sellers and buyers of the marketplace,” prosecutors said.
The prime suspect was brought before a judge but declined to speak. He was placed in pre-trial detention.
The American FBI, DEA narcotics law enforcement division and IRS tax authority took part in the probe along with police from Australia, Britain, Denmark, Switzerland, Ukraine and Moldova.
Europol, Europe’s police agency, played a “coordinating role”.
Pandemic promotes darknet sales
The German prosecutors said DarkMarket came to light in the course of major investigation against the web-hosting service Cyberbunker, located in a former Nato bunker in southwestern Germany.
Three Dutchmen, three Germans and a Bulgarian are believed to have provided the infrastructure for illegal online activities before they were arrested in September 2019. They have been on trial since last October in the German city of Trier.
The secret “darknet” includes websites that can be accessed only with specific software or authorisations, ensuring anonymity for users.
Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2021