Drugs, guns and assassination: Underground website Utopia shut down by police
Published 13/02/2014 | 14:26
A thriving underground website where users could buy illegal drugs and guns for home delivery has been shut down by a police sting operation just nine days after it was launched.
Utopia, a successor to the infamous Silk Road, offered a way for people to buy illicit items such as forged currency and hacking services for bitcoin, relatively anonymously, using the Tor browser. Within hours of launch it had a burgeoning user base thanks to recently closed competitors.
The people behind the website took a small cut from every transaction and, until yesterday, there were around 13,000 listings on the site at any one time. Those visiting the site today are greeted with the message: “This hidden service has been seized, by the Dutch National Police.”
The Dutch police issued a statement saying that five men were arrested in the sting. One of these was in Germany, where the site’s servers are reported to have been based, while the rest were in the Netherlands.
Undercover agents infiltrated the website and managed to buy drugs and guns as part of an investigation they called Commodore. They were able to secure “several thousand” ecstasy pills, MDMA and “dozens of grams of cocaine”. Agents were later “astonished” to also be offered a deposit on an assassination.
Police have now seized external hard drives, USB sticks and around 900 bitcoins – worth around £270,000 at today’s price – all thought to be linked to the site.
The original anonymous marketplace, Silk Road, launched in February 2011. Sometimes called the “Amazon.com of illegal drugs”, the website used the anonymising web tool Tor to protect the identities of buyers, sellers and the site’s administrators. Payment was made in bitcoin, allowing buyers a relative amount of protection.
But even these measures did not ensure total anonymity. Bitcoin transactions are publicly logged, even if not easily linked to an actual identity, and customers still faced the problem of having the drugs posted to them and providing a link to their real name and address.
It ran successfully for more than two years but was shut down in an FBI sting operation in October 2013. The alleged founder of the site, Ross William Ulbricht, is currently awaiting trial in the US.
Within weeks of his arrest former administrators from the site had launched Silk Road 2.0 but by the end of the year this too had been closed, with the FBI arresting three people allegedly behind it.
A site called The Farmer’s Market pre-dates both Silk Road sites, but was shut down by the FBI in 2012. Unlike subsequent sites it did not use bitcoin but services such as Paypal and Western Union which were more easily tracked.
One new website which sprang up in the wake of these closures was Black Market Reloaded, but it was closed in November with the founder claiming that an influx of new users from the defunct Silk Road 2.0 was proving unmanageable.
Utopia was launched on the third of this month, but has lasted just weeks before being closed by law enforcement. A statement issued by the Dutch police claims that the arrests are linked to both Utopia and Black Market Reloaded.