For years, dark web markets and the law enforcement agencies that combat them have been locked in a cycle of raid, rinse, repeat: For every online black market destroyed, another has always been there to take its place. But rarely has a dominant dark web market been busted by a massive law enforcement operation only to rise from the ashes half a decade later and regain its top spot—a feat that may very soon be pulled off by AlphaBay, the once and future king of the contraband crypto-economy.
In July of 2017, a global law enforcement sting known as Operation Bayonet took down AlphaBay’s sprawling narcotics-and-cybercrime bazaar, seizing the site’s central server in Lithuania and arresting its creator, Alexandre Cazes, outside his home in Bangkok. Yet in August of last year, AlphaBay’s number-two administrator and security specialist, publicly known only as DeSnake, suddenly reappeared, announcing AlphaBay’s resurrection in a new and improved form. Now, 10 months later, thanks in part to a tumult of takedowns and mysterious disappearances of competing dark web markets, DeSnake’s reincarnated AlphaBay is now well on its way back to its former heights atop the digital underworld. By some measures, it appears to have already regained that spot.
“Yes, AlphaBay is the #1 darknet marketplace right now,” says DeSnake, writing to WIRED in a text-based conversation last week. “I did tell you we were going to be #1 before,” he added, referring to our interview with AlphaBay’s new admin at the time of its relaunch last summer. “As I have told you, I do what I say.”
DeSnake’s boast is at least partly true: As of last week, AlphaBay had more than 30,000 unique product listings—largely drugs, from ecstasy to opioids, to methamphetamines—but also thousands of listings for malware and stolen data like Social Security numbers and credit card details. That’s up from a mere 500 listings in September of last year. Another older market called ASAP displays more than 50,000 listings. But ASAP is known to allow vendors to post duplicate listings and, according to security firm Flashpoint, which closely tracks the competing markets, AlphaBay had more than 1,300 active vendors in roughly the first six months of this year, compared to about 1,000 for ASAP. According to Flashpoint’s data, AlphaBay’s listings also appear to be growing significantly faster.
Other markets touted in dark web forums like Archetyp and Incognito, meanwhile, have only a few thousand or just a few hundred listings. All of that suggests AlphaBay may already be the most popular market for dark web vendors to list their wares for sale.
AlphaBay’s tens of thousands of product listings are still a tiny fraction of the more than 350,000 it offered before its 2017 takedown when it was the biggest dark web market ever seen. By the FBI’s estimate, it was 10 times the size of the legendary Silk Road drug market. DeSnake concedes that the new AlphaBay’s revenue hasn’t yet come close to the level of its 2017 peak when blockchain analysis firm Chainalysis estimates that AlphaBay generated as much as $2 million a day in sales. (DeSnake declined to share current sales numbers but said they are “in the big digits.”)