A federal grand jury in San Diego Thursday returned indictments charging the head of a Canada-based marketer of encrypted mobile communication devices and four of his associates with using the untraceable handsets to aid in international drug dealing.
Vincent Ramos, founder and chief executive officer of Phantom Secure, is accused along with his fugitive co-defendants of taking part a conspiracy to import and distribute illicit narcotics around the world through the use of his company’s secure smartphones.
Ramos, 40, was taken into custody last week in Bellingham, Washington, and is in the process of being transferred to San Diego to stand trial.
The British Columbia resident and his alleged co-conspirators — Michael Gamboa of Los Angeles, Younes Nasri of Dubai, Christopher Poquiz of Los Angeles and Kim Augustus Rodd of Thailand — have been charged with conspiracy to engage in racketeering activities and to aid and abet the illegal distribution of controlled substances. Ramos’ four alleged accomplices remain at large.
The case marks the first time the federal government has targeted a company and its principals for knowingly and intentionally conspiring with criminal drug-trafficking organizations by providing them with technological tools to evade law enforcement and obstruct justice, according to prosecutors.
“With one American dying of a drug overdose every nine minutes, our great nation is suffering the deadliest drug epidemic in our history,” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said.
“Incredibly, some have sought to profit off of this crisis, including by specifically taking advantage of encryption technologies to further criminal activity, and to obstruct, impede and evade law enforcement, as this case illustrates.”
Phantom Secure, court documents state, advertised its products as impervious to decryption, wiretapping and legal third-party records requests, and the company guaranteed the destruction of evidence contained within a device if it was compromised — either by an informant or because it fell into the hands of law enforcement.
Among email handles used by Phantom Secure’s clients, according to prosecutors, were firstname.lastname@example.org, The.email@example.com, The.firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, Triggerfirstname.lastname@example.org, Knee_capper9@lockedpgp.com, Elchapo66@lockedpgp.com, and Time4a187@freedomsecure.me.
As a result of its purported efforts to facilitate international crime, Phantom Secure has generated some $80 million in annual revenue since 2008 while helping foster drug trafficking, obstruction of justice and violent crime around the world, the indictment alleges.
The operation to arrest Ramos and seize his firm’s infrastructure involved efforts on the part of law enforcement authorities in the United States, Australia and Canada, with additional assistance from U.S. and foreign law enforcement in Panama, Hong Kong and Thailand, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego.
Over the past two weeks, in cooperation with Australian Federal Police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police, more than 250 agents around the world have conducted about two dozen searches of houses and offices of Phantom Secure associates in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, Australia and Canada, officials said.
The coordinated raids led to the seizure of servers, computers, cellphones and Phantom Secure devices used to operate the company’s network, as well as drugs and weapons.
Authorities have seized Phantom Secure’s property, including more than 150 domains and licenses that were being used by transnational criminal organizations to send and receive encrypted messages, and seized bank accounts and property in Los Angeles, elsewhere in California and in Las Vegas.
The case stems from an investigation in the Southern District of California of a Phantom Secure client who allegedly used the company’s devices to coordinate shipments of thousands of kilograms of cocaine and other drugs throughout the globe.
According to court documents, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Phantom devices were in use worldwide before authorities dismantled the company and took its products out of service.
Phantom Secure “was designed to profit off of criminal activity committed by transnational criminal organizations around the world,” according to U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman.
“When criminals go dark and law enforcement cannot monitor their phones or access evidence, crimes cannot be solved, criminals cannot be stopped, and lives can be lost,” Braverman said. “As a result of this groundbreaking prosecution, we will disable the communication infrastructure provided by a criminal enterprise to drug traffickers and other violent criminals.”
–City News Service
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: