FBI busts Phantom Secure CEO for selling secured BlackBerry phones to drug cartels

There are several companies that offer encrypted and untraceable phones for use by the more private figures among us, and Canada-based Phantom Secure is one of them. However, its founder and CEO, Vincent Ramos, has been arrested by the FBI on several charges, all of which are related to selling locked-down BlackBerry phones to members of illegal organizations such as the Sinaloa drug cartel and the Hells Angels.

Phantom Secure takes what appear to be BlackBerry 9720s and removes the microphones, camera, GPS, Internet capabilities, and normal messenger services. It then adds PGP and routes messages through overseas servers. The company also has remote wiping capabilities in the case that a phone is seized by authorities. It looks like the company also offers Samsung Galaxy phones, though BlackBerry phones are likely more popular and they’re the only ones mentioned in this report.

Phantom Secure’s two packages.

A heavily-redacted complaint by FBI Special Agent Nicholas Cheviron was filed in the Southern District of California last Thursday charges Ramos of racketeering conspiracy to conduct enterprise affairs, conspiracy to distribute narcotics, and aiding and abetting. Ramos is on record as saying “We made it—we made it specifically for this [drug trafficking] too,” to undercover agents. The FBI has at least one cooperating witness, a convicted transnational drug trafficker from the Sinaloa cartel, who was a Phantom Secure customer and used the company’s phones to do their business. The aiding and abetting charge comes from said witness, who allegedly used a Phantom phone when organizing the transport of five kilograms of cocaine.

Motherboard‘s anonymous sources say that the operation was carried out in partnership with Canadian and Australian authorities, and that Phantom Secure phones have been sold in Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela, as well as to the Hells Angels. Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) assisted by posing as drug traffickers while purchasing Phantom phones, asking if sending messages like “sending MDMA to Montreal” would be safe (Phantom said it was “totally fine”), and pretending that an associate with incriminating evidence had been arrested and required a remote wipe. Multiple undercover agents, posing as drug traffickers aiming to expand their operations, met Ramos in Las Vegas in February 2017.

An estimated 20,000 Phantom phones are being used around the world, about half of which are in Australia, giving Phantom tens of millions of dollars in revenue. That might change with this report, though.

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