New details emerge about Israeli darknet and crypto suspects indicted in US
Money laundering suspect Tal Prihar sold khat and cannabis to Israelis; bank fraud suspect Ravid Yosef gave dating advice to Angelenos
Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.
On May 6, Israeli police arrested two men allegedly behind an affiliate marketing scheme for illicit purchases on the dark web.
The two men, Michael Phan of Tel Aviv and Yonatan Fingel of Ashdod, were arrested by a Tel Aviv cybercrime unit on the day that the US Justice Department unsealed a grand jury indictment against Phan and his alleged accomplice Tal Prihar, a third Israeli, living in Brazil, who was also arrested on May 6 in Paris. Prihar and Phan were charged with money laundering conspiracy while Fingel has not yet been charged.
Separately, on April 11, an Israeli woman, Ravid Yosef, 36, was indicted in absentia in the Southern District of New York for allegedly committing bank fraud in connection with the operation of an illicit cryptocurrency payment processing company. The indictment against Yosef was unsealed on April 30.
While the two cases are unrelated, the arrests highlight alleged Israeli participation in cybercrime that is international in scope. In the past two weeks, new details have emerged about these Israelis and their backgrounds.
Prihar, 37, and Phan, 34, are Orthodox Jews who ran a company in Israel called Tal Advance Tech that offered website promotion services. Website registration records show that Prihar also registered the websites cannabisa.com, ticketsonline.co.il, and a site that sold the traditional Yemenite stimulant khat to Israeli consumers. Michael Phan registered the site coincenter.co.il, which offered to sell bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to Israelis in 2014 and 2015.
But according to the US indictment, from November 2014 or earlier, the pair also allegedly ran a website known as DeepDotWeb.com that was ostensibly a news site about the dark web and related topics. A cached version of the website from April 9 shows reports with headlines like “DICE-E: An ethical approach for identification, collection, and evaluation of darknet data,” “Yorkshire Man imprisoned for selling class A drugs purchased over the dark web,” and “The German Anti-Black Market Bill Will Negatively Impact Legal Tor Users.”
Despite the factual, newsy nature of much of the website’s content, the site also featured tutorials on how to buy drugs on the darknet, and how to acquire bitcoin, as well as links to various darknet markets where users could purchase fentanyl, heroin, firearms and hacking tools, among other illicit products.
According to the US indictment, Prihar and Phan received commissions on every purchase by users who accessed the darknet through their site. These commissions were paid in bitcoin and other virtual currency and allegedly totaled over $15 million. In total, Prihar and Phan allegedly referred hundreds of thousands of users to the darknet, and those users made hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of purchases.
US, German, Dutch, Brazilian, Israeli and French police all participated in the crackdown against DeepDotWeb and several darknet marketplaces.
Israeli court records show that Prihar, the alleged DeepDotWeb mastermind, has previous drug-related convictions.
In September 2014, Prihar was sentenced to six months of community service at an old-age center in Rosh Ha’ayin for purchasing cocaine over the darknet and for possessing other drugs that were not for personal use.
The court documents described Prihar as the son of an office manager and factory foreman who grew up in Rosh Ha’ayin and first tried illicit drugs at the age of 17. Prihar became religiously observant after his army service.
In a 2012 interview, Prihar described himself as a self-taught website promotion expert whose clients are mostly abroad. He spoke about his blog (last active five years ago) in which he described examples of his work, which consisted of both “white hat” and “black hat” site promotion.
Adamant about sharing lessons of love and life
After the unsealing of the indictment of 36-year-old Ravid Yosef on April 30, online sleuthing by Twitter accounts Jakal Intel and others revealed her to be a Los Angeles woman who had recently moved back to Israel and has widely promoted her services as a dating coach, including in a 2015 Daily Mail article about how she met her boyfriend. On her website, Yosef has described herself as “adamant about sharing the lessons she learned about love and life.”
Yosef has been charged with bank fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud together with Reginald Fowler, one of the owners of the Minnesota Vikings football team.
According to the indictment, Ravid and Fowler allegedly approached numerous US-based banks and opened bank accounts under false pretenses, claiming the accounts would be used for real estate investment when in fact they were being used, allegedly, to transmit funds on behalf of an unlicensed money transmitting business related to the operation of cryptocurrency exchanges.
The money transmitting business on whose behalf Fowler and Ravid were allegedly working was not named.