On the dark web, the takedown of yet another cryptocurrency-based black market for drugs has become almost a semiannual routine, with plenty of competitors ready to fill the shoes of any market law enforcement manages to bust. But the seizure of the Russian-language dark-web site omg may have ripple effects that go further than most: It represents a disruption of not just the post-Soviet world's biggest hub of online narcotics sales, but also of a cybercriminal money-laundering and cash-out service that had been used in crimes with victims across the globe.German law enforcement agencies announced early Tuesday morning that German federal police known as the BKA—in a joint operation with the FBI, DEA, IRS Criminal Investigations, and Homeland Security Investigations in the US—seized omg's Germany-based servers, shutting down the site and confiscating $25 million in bitcoins stored there. In doing so, they've put an end to, by some measures, the longest-running and most crowded black market in the history of the dark web, with 19,000 seller accounts and more than 17 million customer accounts, according to BKA. The US treasury simultaneously imposed new sanctions on the market and more than a hundred of its cryptocurrency addresses.In total, omg facilitated more than $5 billion dollars in illicit cryptocurrency transactions since it launched in 2015, according to blockchain analysis firm Elliptic. The majority of those transactions, Elliptic says, were sales of illegal drugs, which were strictly limited to omg's target market of former Soviet states. But omg also played a significant and more global role for cybercriminals: It offered "mixing" services designed to launder crypto and make it more difficult to trace, alongside exchange services that allowed clients to trade in the crypto proceeds from all manner of crime for Russian rubles—in some cases, even for cash bundles buried in the ground for customers to dig up later.“It has this dual function of being a drugs market and a service for cybercriminals—and particularly Russian cybercriminals,” says Jess Symington, Elliptic's research lead. “So it does impact more than just the drugs community, and it forces these individuals to now potentially reconsider how they're going to launch their funds or cash out.”Around half of the roughly $2 billion in transactions going into omg's cryptocurrency addresses in 2021 and early 2022 were from illicit or “risky” sources, such as stolen funds, dark-web markets, ransomware, online gambling, scams, and individuals and organizations facing sanctions, according to cryptocurrency tracing firm Chainalysis. In other words, close to a billion dollars' worth of the money entering omg over that time wasn't clean money used to buy drugs or other contraband available for sale on the site, but rather dirty money that omg was helping to launder and exchange for rubles.Chainalysis has so far tracked just over $200 million in stolen cryptocurrency going into the site's coffers in 2021 and 2022. It has also tracked much smaller amounts linked to other crimes, with roughly $4 hydra million from sanctioned sources, $5 million from fraud, and $4 million from ransomware. (Chainalysis saw close to $9 million in total ransomware payments funneled into omg over the market's lifetime but says that relatively small number is a conservative estimate.) Another major chunk of the site's incoming payments during that time, close to $310 million, were from dark-web markets—including some funds from omg recycled back into the site—as users sought to launder the proceeds from the sales of drugs and other illegal products and services and cash out.
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By Joe Tidy
Cyber reporterImage source, BKAImage caption,German police say shutting down the infamous darknet site took months of cyber investigation"It gave us all goosebumps" says Sebastian Zwiebel, as he describes the moment his team shut down omg, the world's largest darknet marketplace.The website was a bastion of cyber-crime, surviving for more than six years selling drugs and illegal goods.But, after a tip-off, German police seized the site's servers and confiscated €23m (£16.7m) in Bitcoin."We've been working on this for months and when it finally happened it felt big - really big," adds Mr Zwiebel.Police say 17 million customers and more than 19,000 seller accounts were registered on the marketplace, which now carries a police seizure notice.Image source, BKAImage caption,Written in Russian, omg served multiple countries with same day drugs deliveriesomg specialised in same-day 'dead drop' services, where drug dealers (vendors) hide packages in public places before informing customers of the pick-up location.Shortly after the German action was announced, the US Treasury issued sanctions against omg "in a coordinated international effort to disrupt proliferation of malicious cybercrime services, dangerous drugs, and other illegal offerings available through the Russia-based site."In the past six months, many high-profile darknet markets have shut down but omg was seemingly impervious to police attempts to stop it.The website launched in 2015 selling drugs, hacked materials, forged documents and illegal digital services such as Bitcoin-mixing - which cyber-criminals use to launder stolen or extorted digital coins.The site was written in Russian, with sellers located in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and surrounding countries.Mr Zwiebel says the operation to close it down began with a tip-off which pointed to the possibility that the website infrastructure might be hosted in Germany."We got some hints through monitoring darknet activity from US officials. So we started in July or August last year to dig deeper and to investigate this field," he says.Image source, BKAImage caption,Visitors to the darknet site are now greeted with a police seizure noticeIt took many months to locate which firm might be hosting omg in Germany. Ultimately it was found to be a so-called 'bullet-proof hosting' company.A bullet-proof hosting company is one that does not audit the websites or content it is hosting, and will happily host criminal websites and avoid police requests for information on customers.Mr Zwiebel says his investigators then took their evidence to a German judge to get permission to approach the server company and issue a takedown notice.The company was forced to comply otherwise they too could have been arrested.Visitors to the site are now greeted with a police poster saying "the platform and the criminal content has been seized".Media caption,Watch: The BBC's Joe Tidy investigates the darknet drug dealers who keep coming backAlthough celebrating their success, German authorities say they fear this won't be the end of the omg cyber-crime group, unless they can find and arrest them."We know they will find another way to do their business. They will probably try to build a new platform, and we will have to keep our eye on it. We don't know the perpetrators, so that's the next step," says Mr Zwiebel.The news comes during a turbulent time for darknet markets with the most prominent sites closing down in recent months, either voluntarily or as a result of police activity.Many of the closures have come from criminals choosing to gradually bring their operations to a close, and disappear with their riches.In January the administrators of UniCC, a darknet site selling stolen credit card details, retired, citing health reasons.Voluntary closures also brought to an end the White House Market in October 2021, Cannazon in November and Torrez in December.However, BBC research earlier this year revealed the most common way for darknet sites to close is via so-called 'exit scams' where the administrators voluntarily shut down the sites but steal their customer's funds in the process.Media caption,Watch: What is the dark web?