“Atlantis admins shut down the site and ran away with the coins. It’s the truth.” - Cicero, Moderator of Atlantis Marketplace forum
A little under six months ago – not long after they opened shop – I conducted the first in-depth interview with online drug barons Loera and Vladimir, founders of Atlantis Marketplace. The two were excited at the prospect of not only wrenching market share from incumbent black market giant Silk Road, but also bringing new business in and legitimising the online illicit drug market space.
Last week, Atlantis announced it was shutting down due to mysterious and unspecified “security concerns”.
The announcement, repeated on the Atlantis Facebook page, official forum, Reddit and Twitter, called it “terrible news” and the owners sounded truly contrite. They gave users a week to withdraw their crypto-currency, after which it would be donated to a “drug-related charity”. That was the last anybody ever heard from anyone representing the administration of Atlantis.
The moderators of the Atlantis community forums, Cicero and Heisenberg2.0 (who also ran the Facebook and Twitter accounts), were as surprised as anyone. They couldn’t provide any answers, though they valiantly held fast to their sinking ship, reassuring members that the owners were the good guys, they’d get their money back; it was adversaries – law enforcement or competitors – who had brought the business down. They truly believed this to be true.
Well, they tried. But those who had Bitcoin tied up in Atlantis found that their efforts to withdraw were thwarted by error messages and redirects. And then, around 10:30pm AEST on 26 September 2013, both the Atlantis website and the Atlantis forum returned 404 errors. They were gone. And so was the money.
So what happened?
“Many users have claimed the administrators have run off with their money. I cannot deny it,” says Cicero, who moderated the Atlantis forums from April until yesterday. His disappointment is palpable as he comes to terms with what happened.
Cicero was one of the first non-founding members of Atlantis to work for the new black market. A disillusioned Silk Road vendor (“I didn’t like the way they handled scams; by the time they did anything the scam was complete and the scammer gone”), he answered the call of an early forum post to have a role in the revolutionary new site.
Cicero never met any of the administration team, nor was he privy to any inside information of the Atlantis business. His job was to moderate the forums – removing the spam, putting the discussions in the appropriate threads, deleting posts that were a threat to security and engaging the new members. He was given what he described as “an honorarium… of around $200”, but it wasn’t about the money. “I believed in the Atlantis vision, which was somewhat different to the Silk Road vision.”
He enjoyed his time as moderator. “They gave me the forum and let me run it the way I wanted to,” he said. “But I was never involved in any important decision making. That said, they did implement some of my suggestions, and the original plan was for me to start working in support in the near future. But at some point that got shelved.”
The forum ran well and Cicero had high hopes that Atlantis could form a community to rival that which has grown up around Silk Road. “Everyone was on board with the culture of the forum,” he said. “Except for the SEO spam, I only had to delete a post once every two weeks.”
Cicero truly felt he was part of something revolutionary and was a fan of the much-maligned marketing strategy that included a YouTube advertisement. “It was brilliant,” he said. “So brazen.”
He was as shocked as anyone upon hearing the announcement that Atlantis was closing its doors for good. The moderators had no forewarning, no explanations, no courtesy call. “In this particular matter… I was blindsided by that entirely,” he said. “Not that I didn’t notice something going wrong these past 8 weeks -support times went from prompt to atrocious.”
He held on to the hope that the administrators were going to take the moral way out, returning money to the users and donating the residual to a drug-related charity. He and his colleague Heisenberg2.0 remained active on the forums, responding as best they could to the members questions and concerns, even as it became clear that something was very, very wrong. Deposits were working but withdrawals were not. Loera and Vladimir disappeared.
What, I asked him, made him stay?
“Ethics,” he responded simply. “And a lot of people needed to vent, so I allowed them to vent a little on me”.
He no longer buys the ‘security issue’ explanation. “In the last few weeks support time turnaround became very slow. Scheduled updates were not implemented. Communication from administrators to moderators became sparse. None of these had anything to do with security at all,” he said. “In my opinion a business decision was made to shut the site down because it did not bring in profits commensurate to the costs of running the site.”
He said that the most he knew of any one member losing was $3000, although one user on Reddit claims to have lost 30 Bitcoin, which at today’s rate is about $US3800. This might sound like a lot, but it pales in comparison to what some Silk Road members lost in the Tony76 scam.
“I am disappointed that the admins did not make sure that the buyers and vendors who stuck with Atlantis until the end got their money owed to them,” he said. Cicero is one of those who lost money, but only to the tune of $50 or so.
When I ask him whether he feels ripped off at the way he and the other members of Atlantis were treated, he is philosophical.
“Ripped off? Hmmm… what can I say? I am very disappointed, but this is a good learning experience for me.”
Loera and/or Vladimir, I would love to hear your side of the story. You know where to find me.