European and American investigators have broken up one of the world’s largest online criminal trafficking operations in a series of raids in the US and Germany, authorities said.
Three German men, aged 31, 29 and 22, were arrested after the raids in three southern states on allegations that they operated the so-called the “Wall Street Market” dark web platform, which hosted 5,400 sellers and 1.15 million customer accounts, Frankfurt prosecutor Georg Ungefuk told reporters in Wiesbaden.
The men, whose names were not released as the investigation is ongoing, face drug charges in Germany on allegations that they operated the platform where cocaine, heroin and other drugs were sold, as well as forged documents and other illegal materials.
The dark web is an encrypted part of the internet which cannot be accessed via the usual search engines and browsers.
They have also been charged in the US, said Ryan White, a prosecutor with the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, who travelled to Germany with FBI and DEA agents for the announcement.
“The charges filed in Germany and the United States will significantly disrupt the illegal sale of drugs on the dark web,” Mr White told reporters.
“We believe that Wall Street Market recently became the world’s largest dark web marketplace for contraband including narcotics, hacking tools, illegal services and stolen financial data.”
Mr Ungefuk said Wall Street Market was at least the second biggest, refusing to name others for fear of jeopardising other investigations.
In the nearly two-year operation that involved European police agency Europol and authorities in the Netherlands as well as the US and Germany, investigators pinpointed the three men as administrators of the platform on the dark web, a part of the internet often used by criminals that is hosted within an encrypted network and accessible only through anonymity-providing tools, such as the Tor browser.
Transactions were conducted using cryptocurrencies, and the suspects took a commission of between 2% and 6%, Mr Ungefuk said.
The site trafficked documents such as identity papers and driving licences but an estimated 60% or more of the business was drug-related, he said.
Authorities swept in quickly after the platform was switched into a “maintenance mode” on April 23, and the suspects allegedly began to transfer customers’ payments to themselves in a so-called “exit scam”, Mr Ungefuk said.
The raids culminated on Thursday with the seizure of servers, while federal police confiscated 550,000 euros (£470,000) in cash, both Bitcoin and Monero cryptocurrencies, hard drives, and other evidence in multiple raids.
In Los Angeles, two drug suppliers were arrested and authorities confiscated a million dollars (£770,000) cash, weapons and drugs in raids. Mr White did not release their names but characterised them as “major drug traffickers” who were dealing methamphetamine and fentanyl.
Because of the clandestine nature of the operation and the difficulty of tracing cryptocurrencies, Mr Ungefuk said it was difficult to assess the overall volume of business conducted but added: “We’re talking about profits in the millions, at least.”