Phantom Secure Takedown: Selling Unhackable Phones to Drug Cartels

Vincent Ramos, CEO of Canada-based Phantom Secure & four associates were indicted on charges that they knowingly and intentionally participated in a criminal enterprise that facilitated the importation & distribution of narcotics through the sale & service of encrypted communications to evade law enforcement and obstruct justice while committing transnational drug trafficking.
Vincent Ramos, CEO of Canada-based Phantom Secure & four associates were indicted on charges that they knowingly and intentionally participated in a criminal enterprise that facilitated the importation & distribution of narcotics through the sale & service of encrypted communications to evade law enforcement and obstruct justice while committing transnational drug trafficking.

Phantom Secure Helped Drug Traffickers, Organized Crime Worldwide

International organized crime and drug trafficking groups were dealt a blow by the takedown of an encrypted communication service they used to plan and commit their crimes, by the FBI and its international partners in March.

Canada-based Phantom Secure was a criminal enterprise that provided secure communications to high-level drug traffickers and other criminal organization leaders.

The group purchased smartphones, removed all of the typical functionality—calling, texting, Internet, and GPS—and installed an encrypted e-mail system, so the phones could only communicate with each other.

If a customer was arrested, Phantom Secure destroyed the data on that phone, which is obstruction of justice under U.S. law.

In an attempt to thwart law enforcement efforts, the company required new customers to have a reference from an existing user.

Given the limited functionality of the phones and the fact that they only operate within a closed network of criminals, all of Phantom Secure’s customers are believed to be involved in serious criminal activity.

(Courtesy of Phantom Secure Published on Dec 20, 2017)

Phantom Secure Advertisement:

“Phantom Secure is a high-end communication service for executives who need an effective and proven solution for all their concerns in the mobile field. For over 10 years, our service has been tested worldwide without incident.”

“This has led to our worldwide reputation as a market leader in encrypted private communications, but more importantly, a company that you can CONFIDENCE. We emphasize trust, because without trust all service is questionable.”

“Thanks to our innovation and reliability, we are recognized and valued by our exclusive customers worldwide as the most trusted private company.”

Image courtesy of the FBI
Image courtesy of the FBI

Most of Phantom Secure’s 10,000 to 20,000 users are the top-level leaders of nefarious transnational criminal organizations in the U.S. and several other countries, and the products were marketed as impervious to decryption or wiretapping.

“Working with our international partners in Australia and Canada, we learned that these phones have been used to coordinate drug trafficking, murders, assaults, money laundering, and all sorts of other crimes,” said Special Agent Nicholas Cheviron of the FBI’s San Diego Division, who investigated the case along with U.S. and international counterparts.

“By shutting down Phantom Secure, criminals worldwide no longer have that platform to conduct their dangerous criminal activities.”

In collaboration with the Australian Federal Police, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and law enforcement agencies in Panama, Hong Kong, and Thailand, Phantom Secure’s founder and chief executive Vincent Ramos was arrested in Bellingham, Washington, on March 7.

(The FBI has arrested Vincent Ramos, the CEO of Phantom Secure. The company is an established maker of custom smartphones. Motherboard reported that Ramos allegedly aided criminal organizations by providing devices that were modified to hide their illegal activities. Courtesy of Wochit News and YouTube. Posted on Mar 11, 2018)

Four of Ramos’ associates are fugitives.

They have been charged with Conspiracy to Commit RICO in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962 and Conspiracy to Aid and Abet the Distribution of Controlled Substances in violation of 21 U.S.C.  § 841 and 846.

Additionally, Ramos and four of his associates were indicted by a federal grand jury on Thursday on charges that they knowingly and intentionally participated in a criminal enterprise that facilitated the transnational importation and distribution of narcotics through the sale and service of encrypted communications.

“With one American dying of a drug overdose every nine minutes, our great nation is suffering the deadliest drug epidemic in our history,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions

“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.”

“The Department of Justice will aggressively prosecute not just drug traffickers, but those who help them spread addiction and death in our communities.”

“I want to thank the FBI, DEA, Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security Investigations, Washington State Police, the Bellingham and Blaine Police Departments, and all of our law enforcement partners around the world, including Australia, Canada, Panama, Hong Kong, and Thailand for their hard work on this case.”

“Today’s indictment sends a clear message that drug traffickers and criminals cannot hide, because we will hunt them down and find them wherever they are,” Sessions added.

This case is the first time the U.S. government has targeted a company and its leaders for assisting a criminal organization by providing them with technology to “go dark,” or evade law enforcement’s detection of their crimes.

“By shutting down Phantom Secure, criminals worldwide no longer have that platform to conduct their dangerous criminal activities.”

Nicholas Cheviron, special agent, FBI San Diego
U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman
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,” said U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman.

“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.”

“Phantom Secure was designed to profit off of criminal activity committed by transnational criminal organizations around the world. We are committed to shutting these criminals down.”

“The indictment of Vincent Ramos and his associates is a milestone against transnational crime,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

“Phantom Secure allegedly provided a service designed to allow criminals the world over to evade law enforcement to traffic drugs and commit acts of violent crime without detection.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray
FBI Director Christopher Wray

“Ramos and his company made millions off this criminal activity, and our takedown sends a serious message to those who exploit encryption to go dark on law enforcement.”

“I want to thank our partners at the Department of Justice, as well as our Australian and Canadian law enforcement partners, for their incredible work on this case.”

The FBI takes an enterprise approach to transnational organized crime, taking down criminal organizations from the top using the RICO Act.

The sweeping investigation allowed the entire illicit operation—and its technological infrastructure—to be taken down at one time.

“We had to investigate the entire company and its leaders, both from a personnel and technology perspective,”Cheviron said.

“Without arresting the principals and seizing the technology, including more than 150 domain names, you wouldn’t be able to disrupt the communication.”

According to court documents, Phantom Secure advertised its products as impervious to decryption, wiretapping or legal third-party records requests.

(Phantom Encrypt YouTube advertisement regarding encrypted Blackberry mobile phones. Mobile phone features and how to send PGP encrypted messages. Courtesy of Phantom Encrypt and YouTube. Posted on Jan 17, 2016)

Phantom Secure also 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.

The indictment alleges that as a result of its efforts to facilitate international crime, Phantom Secure has generated approximately $80 million in annual revenue since 2008 and facilitated drug trafficking, obstruction of justice, and violent crime around the world.

Over the past two weeks, in cooperation with Australian Federal Police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police, more than 250 agents around the globe conducted approximately 25 searches of houses and offices of Phantom Secure associates in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, and in Australia and Canada, seizing Phantom Secure devices, assets, and evidence of the charged crimes.

A selection of Phantom PGP's Instagram account posts. (Image courtesy of Instagram)
A selection of Phantom PGP’s Instagram account posts. (Image courtesy of Instagram)

The coordinated effort led to the seizure of servers, computers, cell phones, and Phantom Secure devices used to operate the Phantom Secure network, as well as drugs and weapons.

Ramos and the others – Kim Augustus Rodd, Younes Nasri, Michael Gamboa and Christopher Poquiz – are charged with participating in and aiding and abetting a racketeering enterprise and conspiring to import and distribute controlled substances around the world.

Authorities have seized Phantom Secure’s property, including more than 150 domains and licenses which were being used by transnational criminal organizations to send and receive encrypted messages.

Authorities also seized bank accounts and property in Los Angeles, California and Las Vegas, Nevada.

This case stems from an investigation in the Southern District of California of a Phantom Secure client who used Phantom devices to coordinate shipments of thousands of kilograms of cocaine and other drugs throughout the globe.

According to court documents, there were an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Phantom devices in use worldwide before the authorities dismantled the company.

This coordinated action means Phantom Secure’s clients can no longer use these devices to commit crimes.

According to Timothy O’Connor, Executive Director of the Criminal Investigations Division New South Wales Crime Commission, “The disruption of the Phantom Secure platform has been one of the most significant blows to organized crime in Australia.”

In addition to our foreign law enforcement partners, the U.S. Attorney’s Office further recognizes the support and assistance of the following among others, without whose help this prosecution could not have been possible:

  • The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Customs and Border Protection
  • The Department of Homeland Security
  • Seattle and Las Vegas field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • The Washington State Police Department
  • The City of Bellingham, Washington Police Department
  • The City of Blaine, Washington Police Department, and
  • The Canada Border Services Agency

Speaking on behalf of Australian law enforcement authorities, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Assistant Commissioner Organised Crime, Neil Gaughan said today Australia’s role in this complex and unique investigation began in early 2017 following an exchange of intelligence with the FBI and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

As a result, Australian authorities executed 19 search warrants across four states last week as part of the international action, where more than 1,000 encrypted mobile devices were seized.

Assistant Commissioner Organised Crime, Neil Gaughan
Assistant Commissioner Organised Crime, Neil Gaughan

“The action taken in the U.S. directly impacts the upper echelons of organized crime both here in Australia and offshore, who until now have been able to confidently control and direct illicit activity like drug importations, money laundering and associated serious criminal offending,” said Assistant Commissioner Gaughan.

“Our thanks go to our international partners – the FBI and RCMP – who have been outstanding in working methodically around the clock together with us on this unique investigation.”

“Without their cooperation, commitment and shared singular drive, Australian law enforcement agencies would not be announcing this significant result today.”

Australian agencies involved in this investigation include:

  • The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission
  • The New South Wales Crime Commission
  • State police from New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia
  • The Australian Tax Office and financial intelligence agency AUSTRAC
Assistant Commissioner Jim Gresham, RCMP
Assistant Commissioner Jim Gresham, RCMP

“This investigation is a prime example of law enforcement agencies from around the world working together to identify, investigate and charge people involved in transnational criminal activity,” says Assistant Commissioner Jim Gresham, RCMP Criminal Operations Officer, Investigative Services and Organized Crime.

“We remain committed to investigating and disrupting these illegal activities that adversely affect each of our communities.”

This case is the result of ongoing efforts by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), a partnership that brings together the combined expertise and unique abilities of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt, dismantle and prosecute high-level members of drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and money laundering organizations and enterprises.

FBI banner image

The charges and allegations contained in an indictment or complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.


Vincent Ramos (1)                              Richmond, British Columbia Canada
aka “CEO”
aka “Business”

Kim Augustus Rodd (2)                      Phuket, Thailand
aka Visith Vongthai
aka “Snowstar”
aka “Global”

Younes Nasri (3)                                 Dubai, United Arab Emirates
aka “Maestro”
aka “Jesse”

Michael Gamboa (4)                           Los Angeles, CA
aka “Chino”

Christopher Poquiz (5)                       Los Angeles, CA
aka “Caddy”
aka “Cad”


Racketeering Conspiracy to Conduct Enterprise Affairs (RICO Conspiracy), in violation of 18 USC §1962(d)
Maximum Penalty: Life in prison

Conspiracy to Aid and Abet the Distribution of Narcotics, in violation of 21 USC §841 and 846; Title 18 USC §2
Maximum Penalty: Life in prison

Originally featured in the AST April 2018 ‘Fully Interactive’ Magazine at