Australian man arrested in Germany over the darknet marketplace
Police arrest 34-year-old accused of trafficking cocaine, credit card details and malware operating site
The world's largest darknet marketplace has been taken down by a German-led police sting whose Australian suspected founder used it to facilitate the selling of drugs, stolen credit card data and malware, prosecutors said Tuesday.
DarkMarket had nearly 500,000 users and more than 2,400 sellers worldwide at the time of its closing, as the coronavirus pandemic is forcing much of the street narcotics trade to go online.
"The police were able to arrest the alleged operator of the suspected largest illegal marketplace in the world on the darknet, the DarkMarket, at the weekend in the northern city of Oldenburg," prosecutors said in a statement.
"On Monday, investigators were able to shut down the marketplace and turn off the server," they said, calling it the end of a months-long operation by international law enforcement.
With over 4,650 bitcoins and 12,800 monero, two of the most popular cryptocurrencies, changing hands, prosecutors said, a total of at least 320,000 transactions were carried out via the marketplace.
That represented a turnover estimated at EUR 140 million at current exchange rates (A$ 220 million).
The marketplace offered "all types of drugs" as well as "counterfeit cash, stolen and fake credit card information, anonymous Sim cards, malware and much more" for sale.
Near the German-Danish border, a 34-year-old Australian national suspected to be the DarkMarket operator was arrested, just as more than 20 servers it used in Moldova and Ukraine were confiscated.
"Investigators expect to use the information stored there to launch new probes against the marketplace's moderators, sellers and buyers," prosecutors said.
A judge placed the prime suspect before him but refused to speak. He was placed in pre-trial custody.
Together with police from Australia, Britain, Denmark, Switzerland, Ukraine and Moldova, the American FBI, DEA drug law enforcement division and the IRS tax authority took part in the investigation.
Europol, the police body of Europe, played a coordinating role.
In the course of the big investigation against the web-hosting service Cyberbunker, housed in a former Nato bunker in south-western Germany, the German prosecutors said DarkMarket came to light.
Until they were arrested in September 2019, three Dutchmen, three Germans and a Bulgarian were suspected to have provided the infrastructure for illicit online activities. In the German city of Trier, they have been on trial since last October.
The Hidden Darknet contains websites that can only be accessed with special software or permissions, ensuring users remain anonymous.
In recent months, they have been under increased scrutiny from international law enforcement.
In September, the EU Narcotics Agency sounded the alarm that the pandemic was struggling to disrupt drug smugglers and traffickers as consumers and vendors used the web to supply them.
Although street trading during the height of the pandemic was influenced by sanctions, it reported that customers and dealers switched to online "darknet" markets, social media and home delivery.
A global police sting also netted 179 vendors involved in the underground internet sale of heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs in September, in what Europol officials said put an end to the 'golden age' of dark web markets at the time.
About 121 suspects were arrested in the United States, followed by 42 in Germany, 8 in the Netherlands, 4 in Britain, 3 in Austria, and 1 in Sweden.
The so-called Operation Disruptor followed the closure of the Wall Street Market by the law agency in May 2019, the second-largest dark web exchange with more than 1.1 million users and 5,400 vendors.