Europol reveals German law enforcement was behind ‘Monopoly Market’ takedown
Europol announced on Tuesday that 288 suspects involved in drug trafficking on the darknet marketplace “Monopoly Market” have been arrested globally following an unannounced takedown in December 2021.
The announcement is the first confirmation that Monopoly Market’s disappearance was the result of law enforcement action.
Users across multiple forums had previously expressed concerns about being victims of an exit scam, where marketplace administrators simply disappear with customers’ funds.
Europol said German authorities seized Monopoly Market’s infrastructure more than two years ago, allowing the agency to create intelligence packages that were shared with international partners across Europe as well as in the United States and Brazil.
It is not clear which German authorities were behind the seizure, although Europol described it as happening alongside the seizure of the Hydra marketplace’s infrastructure. Unlike in the Hydra takedown, however, law enforcement did not replace Monopoly Market’s darknet site with a splash page.
The change in tactics netted a record number of arrests for the operation, beating the 150 arrested following the takedown of DarkMarket, and 179 following the takedown of Wall Street Market.
A spokesperson from the general prosecutor's office in Frankfurt told The Record: “There was no press release at the time the marketplace was shut down in December 2021, as (foreign) investigations were still pending, which should not be jeopardized by a statement.”
In a news conference Tuesday, U.S. officials framed the operation within the Biden administration's broader effort to crack down on illegal fentanyl distribution. The pills sold on darknet marketplaces are often counterfeit and laced with the powerful opioid, Attorney General Merrick Garland said.
Garland acknowledged that no single operation against darknet markets will stop the underground economy, but he said law enforcement agencies have noticed that taking out a market does “disrupt the situation for some time.”
“There is a bit of a Whac-a-Mole problem here, and we are whacking as hard as we can,” Garland said. “We are getting more and more sophisticated and more and more capable of finding both the perpetrators and the victims and the customers.”
Beyond arrests and seizures of servers, it’s important for governments to warn people about the dangers of buying illegal drugs online, said FBI Deputy Director Paul M. Abbate.
“We're really focused on reaching out to potential victims and better informing them and bringing awareness to the public so that people can put themselves in the best position to protect their own lives,” Abbate said.
Number of arrests
- United States: 153
- United Kingdom: 55
- Germany: 52
- The Netherlands: 10
- Austria: 9
- France: 5
- Switzerland: 2
- Poland: 1
- Brazil: 1
U.S. and Europol officials noted that online drug dealers often use multiple venues.
“The vendors arrested as a result of the police action against Monopoly Market were also active on other illicit marketplaces, further impeding the trade of drugs and illicit goods on the dark web,” Europol said.
Europol said the operation seized more than €50.8 million ($53.4 million) in cash and virtual currencies, as well as 850kg of drugs — including over 258 kg of amphetamines, 43kg of cocaine, 43kg of MDMA and over 10 kg of LSD and ecstasy pills — alongside 117 firearms.
It added that a number of the suspects were considered “high-value targets” by police, and that investigations to identify additional people behind dark web accounts were still ongoing.
Law enforcement agencies labeled the sweep as Operation SpecTor, after the Tor browser that allows access to the dark web. The DarkMarket operation was called DarkHunTor and the Wall Street Market operation was dubbed DisrupTor.
Martin Matishak and Joe Warminsky contributed to this story.
Update (5/2/2023): This story has been updated to include comments from U.S. officials.
Alexander Martin is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.