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Feds: CEO of tech company provided custom BlackBerry encrypted phones to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel

March 12, 2018  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
Feds: CEO of tech company provided custom BlackBerry encrypted phones to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel JammedUp Compelation/screenschot

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For years, a myriad of shady tech companies has marketed so-called encrypted phones, which are customized BlackBerry or Android cell phones that sometimes have the camera and microphone removed and sends secure messages through private networks.

Federal authorities in the U.S. say several of those companies reportedly serve at the behest of international criminal organizations.

Last week, the FBI arrest the owner of one of the most well-known businesses, Phantom Secure, as part of an elaborate law enforcement investigation, according to the Vancouver Sun.

“The FBI are flexing their muscle,” one source familiar with the industry said.

A complaint filed in the Southern District of California alleges that Vincent Ramos, the founder and, CEO of Phantom, which is a Canada-based company, was involved in a racketeering conspiracy to manage enterprise affairs, conspiracy to distribute drugs, along with aiding and abetting.

Ramos was taken into custody last. The complaint also stated that Ramos and Phantom were not merely incidental to a crime like Apple might be when a criminal uses an iPhone, but that the company was particularly designed to aid criminal activity.

The heavily redacted complaint, drafted by FBI Special Agent Nicholas Cheviron, claims that even members of the infamous Sinaloa cartel used Phantom’s devices and that the “upper echelon members” of international criminal gangs have purchased Phantom encrypted phones.

A second source familiar with the secure phone industry said that the devices have been marketed in Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela, and even to the Hells Angels gang. Cheviron determined that roughly 20,000 Phantom devices are in use across the globe, with approximately half of those in Australia.

U.S. federal authorities accuse the Vancouver-based company Phantom Secure of helping transnational organized crime groups. Photo: PNG

Some of Phantom’s customer email addresses, used as part of Phantom’s messaging service, refer to violent crime. “Leadslinger,” “the.cartel,” “trigger-happy,” and “knee_capper9” are all instances presented in the complaint.

Along with removing the microphone and camera from BlackBerry phones, Phantom also removes GPS navigation, internet, and normal messaging services. Phantom then places Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) software in the phone to send encrypted messages and sends these messages through serves located overseas.

The complaint also stated that Hong Kong and Panama are countries “believed by PHANTOM SECURE to be uncooperative with law enforcement.” The company can also remotely erase any data on devices if law enforcement seizes them.

In order to link Phantom to criminal activities, Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) bought Phantom devices while acting as drug traffickers. The RCMP then questioned if it was safe to send messages such as “sending MDMA to Montreal,” to which Phantom said it was “fine.”

The RCMP also pretended that police had arrested an associate with compromising evidence on the phone and needed Phantom to clear the device. Multiple undercover officers, pretending to be drug traffickers looking to expand their operations, also met Ramos in Las Vegas last year.

“We made it specifically for this [drug trafficking] too,” Ramos told agents.

As part of its probe into Ramos and his company, the FBI has at least one witness—a convicted drug trafficker from the Sinaloa cartel. This unnamed witness, along with someone identified as Marc Emerson who was reportedly involved in trafficking before died of an overdose last June, were customers of Phantom Secure, and used the company’s phones to carry out their transnational drug trafficking activity.

This is where the aiding and abetting charge is introduced—the witness purportedly used a Phantom device while organizing the transit of five kilos of cocaine.

Authorities have cracked down on other encrypted companies reportedly serving organized criminal groups over the past few years. In 2016, Dutch authorities arrested the owner of Ennetcom, whose customers reportedly include hitmen, traffickers, and other dangerous criminals.

Moreover, in 2017, Dutch officials busted PGP Sure, which also catered to organized crime syndicates.

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