It's probably no surprise that Facebook has turned into a veritable marketplace - and we don't mean that actual marketplace-place, where your broke friends invite you to join an auction for their old, dubiously stained mattresses. We're talking about more or less accessible groups, where illegal and often stolen items change hands at the speed of a click. Once in, you can browse the myriad of goods that users – anonymised to varying degrees of cleverness - put up for sale, in what looks like an unregulated market. Some groups are completely open while others require permission from an admin, setting you back about half an hour. What might be surprising about all this, is that a lot of the sellers appear to be kids in their early and mid-teens. That's what we experienced anyway, when we decided we desperately needed some brass knuckles around the office.
We started out trawling through a group called Second Hand Facebook store and - this being Copenhagen – what immediately hits you are the staggering number of bikes up for grabs. No doubt some of them come from legit sellers, but mainly they're way too cheap and frequently described as gifts (i.e. no receipt). Often you can also get an additional discount if you pick it up the same day.
A €700 bike going for a tenth of its price.
A little bit of everything. Thorough descriptions as well, great service.
After a few minutes of browsing we found some nice looking brass knuckles and got down to business. Unfortunately the seller backed out. Maybe he was alerted to my adulthood by my ace spelling and grammar, who knows, but it only allowed for a new seller to hijack the thread and offer some identical brass knuckles at the same price. Halleluja, free market powers.A friend request later, we were negotiation the whens and hows of the deal. We agreed on a nearby Metro station, two o'clock and €25. He asked if I wanted some mace with that, but I declined, just the brass knuckles for now. I arrived at the station a few minutes early and waited a bit, when a text ticked in. "I'll be there in five, max." I started scanning the crowd for my weapons-dealer, alert of every 15-year-old passing by. I'd told him that I was wearing a white shirt and soon a plumpy, freckled, shorts-wearing kid with braces pulled up on his bike. Money changed hands and I was the happy owner of a new set of brass knuckles. Eager to know more about his enterprise, I came clean and admitted to not being a professional brass knuckle-buyer and asked if I he would answer a few questions about his business. He was pretty relaxed about that, but was in the company of his mates, so we agreed I would call him up later with my questions.
Our friendly brass knuckle salesman. Here seen frolicking on a beach.
VICE: How old are you and what do you do?
Kid:I'm 15 and I'm just finishing up middle school.
How long have you been selling illegal stuff on Facebook and how did you learn about it?
Actually, I've only been doing it for about a month. Some friends introduced me to these groups and it seemed easy. Normally I don't really sell brass knuckles. I just bought two from a friend, so I sold one. Normally I sell fireworks from Poland. You can make a lot of money that way.
How much have you made since you started?
I don't know. At least €4000. Maybe €5000. I buy the fireworks in Poland for one Euro a box and then I sell them on Facebook for €15-20.
That's a tidy profit. Haven't your parents noticed that you have a lot of money all of a sudden?
Yeah, they've noticed. But I just tell them that I've been selling some of my Legos. I have a really big collection.
Aren't you scared of the police?
Not really. Some of the sellers in the group are paranoid, especially the ones with Arabic backgrounds. If you said to them you were a journalist, I don't think they would like it. I'm not really scared, though, I try to stay anonymous online and meet buyers in public places. Anyway, I'm stopping after the summer. I'm starting High School and then I'll stop.
Who do you normally sell to?
Kids. Kids basically. Nearly all of them are in secondary school or early high school. I've never met an adult from the group.
What's the craziest thing you or your friends have bought on Facebook?
Brass knuckles, switchblades, telescopic batons, mace, pepper-spray and fireworks. I also saw a hand-grenade once, so I bought it and gave it to my mum's ex boyfriend, who used to be in the military. He got rid of it so no one got hurt. It was already deactivated though.
Do you like guns?
Yeah. I come from a family of hunters. I'm getting a gun license in a few months, so yeah.
Would you ever buy a gun on Facebook?
Depends on who's selling. I would never buy it, if it came from a gang-member or a biker. I'm a German citizen, so I would consider buying a gun in Germany when I turn 18.
Is there anything you won't sell on Facebook?
Real guns definitely. I don't think fireworks are a big deal. But real guns I would never sell.
We also called the police to get their take on this development, but ended up on the receiving end of a standardized email to the tune of: "The Police patrol the internet, as if it were the real world and will intervene if anything is found to be illegal." Reassuring stuff.