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Young housewife unmasked as French ‘dark web’ boss

PARIS: A 28-year-old housewife with no criminal record has been unmasked as the woman behind a major French “dark web” site which sold drugs and guns until it was shut down last week.

The woman was among four people arrested last Tuesday when intelligence agents closed the Black Hand website, where fake ID documents and stolen bank data had also changed hands for more than two years.

Agents from the DNRED intelligence agency seized nearly 4,000 euros in cash and around 25,000 euros ($29,000) in online currencies while swooping on the suspects in four simultaneous raids around France.

The mother of two, who went by various online pseudonyms including “Anouchka” and “Hades”, did not create the site but worked as its administrator, a DNRED agent told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“A woman active at that level, it’s pretty unusual,” the agent said, adding that Anouchka, who did not have a job, was arrested near the northern city of Lille.

Although she did not have what he termed the “geeky profile of an IT technician”, this was not her first experience on the dark net, he added.

Unprecedented French operation

Around 40 DNRED agents were involved in the year-long operation, “the first of its kind in France”, according to public accounts minister Gerald Darmanin.

Several other dark net sites where drugs, guns and even contracts for assassination jobs are exchanged online — most famously the notorious Silk Road — have been smashed around the world in recent years.

The DNRED officer said it was difficult to determine how much money passed through Black Hand, but he estimated that Anouchka earned tens of thousands of euros a year from its operations.

Two others who acted as moderators and who sold illicit items on the site have been charged, as well as another vendor, following police raids near the cities of Montpellier and Marseille as well as Lille.

They were among dozens of active users on the forum, which had 3,000 listed accounts.

The moderators had various ways of making money, the source said, charging membership fees of 25 to 50 euros as well as commissions of two to five percent on transactions.

Members could also pay to get a higher rating on the site.

The DNRED agent declined to say how authorities tracked down those behind the website — whose content, like other sites in the hidden “dark” section of the internet, is particularly difficult to access.

Although the raids have not yet led to more arrests, “we continue to take an interest in the buyers”, the agent said, adding that Black Hand’s former users will be watching the investigation closely.

“They’re right to be worried,” he said.

Investigators were able to access Black Hand’s servers and retrieve large amounts of data during last week’s raids, the official told AFP.

He noted the site had been running since at least 2015 — a considerably long time by the standards of the dark net, where “platforms are often volatile because crooks often run off with the takings”.

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