Five arrested in Utopia dark net marketplace crackdown

Dutch police sign A message from the Dutch police has replaced Utopia's storefront

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Dutch and German police have arrested five people and shut down a "dark net" website as part of an investigation into online criminal marketplaces.

Utopia had been used to trade drugs, stolen credit cards and weapons among other illegal goods, the Dutch public prosecution service said.

The site's pages had been hidden to the public unless they accessed Tor - an otherwise invisible layer of the net.

Police also seized 900 bitcoins, worth about £363,000 or $610,900.

The virtual currency is sometimes used to make it hard to track online transactions.

The announcement follows the FBI's seizure of Silk Road - another dark net marketplace - in October.

Confiscated weapon The police confiscated weapons and drugs as part of their operations

The Dutch authorities said their operation - codenamed Commodore - sent out a message that no-one was "untouchable" on Tor.

However, one journalist who covers the sector said dozens of illicit marketplaces remained online.

Seized site

Utopia had only launched nine days ago. The DeepDotWeb news site posted screenshots at the time that showed guns, hacking kits, cocaine and counterfeit goods being offered for sale.

What is Tor?

Invented by the US Naval Research Laboratory to help people use the web without being traced, Tor (The Onion Router) aids anonymity in two ways.

First, it can be used to browse the world wide web anonymously. It does this by routing traffic through many separate encrypted layers to hide the data identifiers that prove useful in police investigations.

Second, there are hidden sites on Tor that use the .onion domain suffix. These are effectively websites but, as they sit on Tor, are almost impervious to investigation.

Journalists and whistle-blowers use Tor to communicate with each other.

However, documents leaked by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden indicate the US authorities are concerned that terrorists and criminals are also using Tor to stay hidden.

The papers indicate that as a result the NSA has developed ways to track at least some of the people using the service.

By the time Utopia went offline on Tuesday there were more than 13,000 listings on its pages, with many of the traders offering to ship their goods worldwide.

Prices were quoted in euros, but purchases could by made via the virtual currency Bitcoin to help keep the transactions anonymous.

Visitors to the site are now greeted by the Dutch police force's logo and a message saying: "This hidden service has been seized."

Two Dutch men, aged 30 and 31, alleged to have run the service had also been involved in another dark net site, Black Market Reloaded, which had closed towards the end of 2013, said prosecutors.

The other suspects arrested on Friday are:

  • a 29-year-old from Utrecht, who the prosecutors said they believed had been involved in several other unnamed black market marketplaces in addition to Utopia
  • a 46-year-old Dutch national accused of illegal trade over the internet and an attempt to incite murder
  • a 21-year-old German, arrested in Bad Nauheim near Frankfurt, accused of selling hard drugs and weapons
Assassination deposit

As part of Operation Commodore, prosecutors said, undercover agents had bought thousands of ecstasy pills, raw MDMA and dozens of grams of cocaine.

During their undercover work, it is alleged one of the suspects hired them to commit an assassination and paid a deposit for the job.

Searches of the men's homes led to the confiscation of external hard drives and USB sticks, suggesting the potential for follow-up arrests.

Utopia screenshot Utopia's listings included credit cards and illegal drugs

This is not the first time the Dutch authorities have targeted a Tor-based service.

In 2011, the police infiltrated sites used to distribute about 10,000 photographs showing child sex abuse. Amsterdam-based care worker Robert Mikelsons was subsequently sentenced to 18 years in prison for abusing dozens of youngsters.

While it is not yet known if any arrests have been made in the latest case, DeepDotWeb told the BBC there were still several other Tor sites promoting the sale of illegal goods.

"We just counted about 29 active markets, including specific vendor shops but excluding some others that have not yet been verified or are still under construction," said the news site's owner, who asked to remain anonymous.

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