For years, a slew of shadowy companies have sold so-called encrypted phones, custom BlackBerry or Android devices that sometimes have the camera and microphone removed and only send secure messages through private networks. Several of those firms allegedly cater primarily for criminal organizations.
Now, the FBI has arrested the owner of one of the most established companies, Phantom Secure, as part of a complex law enforcement operation, according to court records and sources familiar with the matter.
“FBI are flexing their muscle,” one source familiar with the secure phone industry, and who gave Motherboard specific and accurate details about the operation before it was public knowledge, said. Motherboard granted the sources in this story anonymity to talk about sensitive developments in the secure phone trade. The source said the Phantom operation was carried out in partnership with Canadian and Australian authorities.
A complaint filed in the Southern District of California on Thursday charges Vincent Ramos, the founder and CEO of Canada-based Phantom, with racketeering conspiracy to conduct enterprise affairs, as well as conspiracy to distribute narcotics, and aiding and abetting. Authorities arrested Ramos on Thursday, according to the court docket. Crucially, the complaint alleges that Ramos and Phantom were not simply incidental to a crime, like Apple might be when a criminal uses an iPhone, but that the company was specifically created to facilitate criminal activity.
The heavily redacted complaint, written by FBI Special Agent Nicholas Cheviron, alleges that even members of the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel used Phantom’s devices, and that the “upper echelon members” of transnational criminal groups have bought Phantom phones. A second source also familiar with the secure phone industry told Motherboard that the devices have been sold in Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela, as well as to the Hells Angels gang. Cheviron estimates that 20,000 Phantom devices are in use worldwide, with around half of those in Australia; bringing in tens of millions of dollars of revenue to Phantom.
Some of Phantom’s customer email addresses, used as part of Phantom’s messaging service, make references to violent crime. “Leadslinger,” “the.cartel,” “trigger-happy,” and “knee_capper9” are all examples provided in the complaint.
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In addition to removing the microphone and camera from BlackBerry devices, Phantom also takes out GPS navigation, internet browsing, and normal messenger services, the complaint reads. Phantom then installs Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) software to send encrypted messages, and routes these messages through overseas servers, the complaint alleges. The complaint points to Hong Kong and Panama as countries “believed by PHANTOM SECURE to be uncooperative with law enforcement.” Phantom can also remotely wipe devices in the event they are seized by authorities.
In order to pin Phantom to criminal activities, Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) purchased Phantom devices while posing as drug traffickers. The RCMP then asked if it was safe to send messages such as “sending MDMA to Montreal,” to which Phantom replied it was “totally fine.” The RCMP also pretended that authorities had arrested an associate with incriminating evidence on the phone, and needed Phantom to wipe the device. Multiple undercover agents, posing as drug traffickers looking to expand their operations, also met Ramos in Las Vegas in February 2017, the complaint continues.
“We made it—we made it specifically for this [drug trafficking] too,” Ramos told undercover agents, according to a transcript included in the complaint.
As part of its investigation into Ramos and Phantom Secure, the FBI has at least one cooperating witness—a convicted transnational drug trafficker from the Sinaloa cartel—according to the complaint. This unnamed witness, along with someone named Marc Emerson who was alleged to be involved in the drug trafficking before dying due to an overdose in June 2017, were customers of Phantom Secure, and used the company’s devices to conduct their transnational drug trafficking activity, the complaint adds. This is where the aiding and abetting charge comes in—the cooperating witness allegedly used a Phantom device while organizing the transit of five kilograms of cocaine.
“We made it—we made it specifically for this [drug trafficking] too,” Ramos told undercover agents.
On Wednesday, when Motherboard learned of the operation and contacted the Bureau before the court documents became public, an FBI spokesperson declined to comment, citing the Bureau’s policy of neither confirming or denying investigations. The FBI did not respond to a follow-up request on Saturday.
Ramos’ lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Law enforcement agencies have cracked down on other encrypted phone companies allegedly catering to organised crime over the past few years. In 2016, Dutch investigators arrested the owner of Ennetcom, whose customers allegedly include hitmen, drug traffickers, and other serious criminals. And then in 2017, Dutch authorities also busted PGP Sure, which also allegedly catered to organized crime.