Shortly before AlphaBay took over the darknet top spot, Alpha02 changed his username on the site to “admin” and announced that he would no longer accept any private messages sent to him by anyone other than AlphaBay employees. Instead, he left much of the site’s communications to his deputy and head of security, who goes by the pseudonym DeSnake.
The Alpha02 moniker served its purpose, giving the site its initial credibility. Now, the man behind it intends, like discreet crime bosses around the world, to sneak into the shadows and plunder his wealth as quietly and anonymously as possible.
By the time Alpha02 changed its name, the wealth was growing at an unprecedented rate: by October 2015, AlphaBay had more than 200,000 users and more than 21,000 drug listings, compared with just 12,000 listings at the peak of Silk Road. Sometime around mid-2016, AlphaBay’s sales surpassed Agora’s peak daily sales of $350,000, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. It became not only the largest black market on the dark web, but the largest cryptocurrency black market ever. And it’s growing like crazy.
For Fresno prosecutor Grant Raben, it’s clear that Alpha02 is now the most wanted man on the dark web. Rabenn compared his notoriety among digital crime investigators to Osama bin Laden. AlphaBay and Alpha02 are called at every cybercrime enforcement meeting, every interagency meeting, every training event, Rabenn said. As the targets on Alpha02’s back grew, so did the unspoken fear that the mastermind could be one step ahead of them indefinitely.
“Is this man just a pure genius who has figured out all possible mistakes?” Raben remembers asking himself. “Has this guy found a perfect country with the right IT infrastructure to run the market, and he’s able to bribe the officials there so we never touch him?
“As each day goes on, there’s a growing sense that this could be something special,” Raben said. “You start to wonder: is this the Michael Jordan of the dark web?”
But Raben followed these discussions of Alpha02 from afar. It never occurred to him that his Fresno team might actually challenge Michael Jordan of the dark web. “For people like us, it’s not a place to go after a site like this,” he said simply, “to go after a site like this.”
before Grant Raben After becoming a federal prosecutor, his second job after law school was at a boutique firm in Washington, D.C., defending white-collar criminals. The young, olive-skinned, dark-haired, Hollywood-smile lawyer ended up representing Russian oligarchs and corporate executives accused of bribing foreign governments. “Very funny rich people trying to hide their assets and avoid scrutiny,” as he describes them, or “James Bond characters flying around the world with suitcases full of cash.”
Rabenn was captivated by these glimpses into the world of billion-dollar invisible deals. But he also found he admired and envied the prosecutors on the other side of the table — the way they worked in the public interest, with a certain autonomy to choose which cases they pursued. So he started applying for a job at the Justice Department, eventually getting a job in Fresno.
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