Alleged $100M dark-web drug kingpin, 23, arrested

DoJ claims he used platform's last days to extort its users

A 23-year-old Taiwanese man was arrested in New York for allegedly running the $100 million global dark web narcotics e-commerce operation known as Incognito Market.

That's according to a Monday announcement by the US Department of Justice (DoJ).

"The arrest of 'Incognito Market' owner Rui-Siang Lin is a result of the continued working relationship the DEA has with our law enforcement partners in targeting individuals who use the dark web as a marketplace to promote the sale of illicit narcotics," explained Frank A Tarentino III of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The dark web site was formed in October 2020 and ran until March of this year, serving as a forum to buy and sell commodities including heroin, cocaine, LSD, MDMA, oxycodone, methamphetamines, ketamine, and alprazolam.

Rui-Siang Lin – who also went by the online pseudonym "Pharoah" or "faro" – is accused of having run the entire business. This included supervising all the platform's operations, its employees, vendors, and customers, and holding "ultimate decision-making authority over every aspect of the multimillion-dollar operation." Enterprising youngster, allegedly.

The platform provided a user experience that matched those offered by modern e-commerce sites, complete with vetting and registration of sellers, advertising, customer service faciities and a slick UX.

Its front page promised visitors that "Incognito Market is a market with a focus on both ease of use and security. With a small, dedicated staff team and nothing useless or bloated to slow you down. Be a part of something bigger and enjoy the nice UI/UX."


Incognito Market front page – Click to enlarge

A couple of things distinguished Incognito Market from other e-commerce sites: a requirement to access it through the Tor web browser, and accepting only cryptocurrency.

"Lin collected millions of dollars of profits from Incognito. To facilitate these financial transactions, Incognito Market had its own 'bank,' which allowed its users to deposit cryptocurrency on the site into their own 'bank accounts,'" explained the DoJ.

"After a narcotics transaction was completed, cryptocurrency from the buyer's 'bank account' was transferred to the seller's 'bank account,' less the five percent fee that Incognito collected. The bank enabled buyers and sellers to stay anonymous from each other," the Department further explained.

Lin allegedly used those funds to pay employees and for computer servers – as well as collecting millions of dollars in profit.

The investigation found the marketplace allegedly had transacted approximately $80 million in cryptocurrency.

The DoJ noted that Lin has some serious IT skills – a necessity to pull off such a large scale and successful operation.

Investigators found what appeared to be Lin's GitHub account, which described him as a "Backend and Blockchain Engineer, Monero Enthusiast." He appeared to hold approximately 35 publicly available software coding projects – including those related to operation of cryptocurrency servers and web applications.

Most notably, there was a tool to mitigate DDoS attacks, software that allows online merchants to accept XMR for payment, and "Koa-typescript-framework" – a program used as a foundation for web applications.

But just as the operator of Incognito Market certainly collected skills, he also collected enemies. First of all, many of the listings were not pure or authentic in their contents – the platform therefore facilitated the spread of the deadly substance fentanyl, according to the DoJ.

And if that weren't enough, the platform's finals days were allegedly spent extorting its users between $100 and $20,000, under threat of revealing they had participated in the purchase and sale of illegal drugs.

According to Krebs On Security, the administrators pulled off an "exit scam" that left users unable to withdraw millions of dollars from the platform.

"The defendant's greed and disregard for others was further demonstrated by his alleged extortion attempt during the platform's final days," lamented Ivan J Arvelo of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York.

If convicted, Lin faces a mandatory minimum penalty of life in prison for engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise. He could also receive a maximum penalty of life in prison for narcotics conspiracy, a maximum penalty of 20 years for money laundering, and a maximum of five years for conspiracy to sell adulterated and misbranded medication. ®

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