As technology continues to evolve, so too does its use in the drug trade.
First, the darknet came along and made the buying process easier than it had ever been. Next, social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat put thousands of local dealers in your pocket. And the latest development? Robots.
Televend is an automated digital retail system used to sell illegal drugs on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. The online stores it facilitates are staffed and operated, 24 hours a day, by a clever string of ones and zeros. Or, if you like, robots.
One Televend user, who wished to remain anonymous, told VICE News, “I scored some MDMA last week off a bot. It took a minute. It works faster than any market I’ve ever used, and it’s always online. There are a few big vendors I’ve used for years who are on it now.”
Televend claims its service has 200,000 registered users and more than 40,000 active users. By comparison, the busiest traditional darknet market (DNM), White House Market, has 100,000 active users and 2,000 active vendors. Televend’s claims cannot be independently verified, and its main Telegram channel has only around 15,000 subscribers and a few hundred dealers at the time of writing.
Some of the robot-run stores broadcast discounts and special offers to subscribers, and automatically send out alerts warning customers of low stock levels. Customer feedback systems show vendors’ recent performance, helping buyers select the most-trusted operator offering the product they want at the right price.
A standard DNM drug deal is slow in comparison. New customers must first download and install the Tor browser, find the URL of a trusted marketplace and navigate to the hidden site. Then, if the market is online and not under attack by hackers, they must create a user account and log in through often-arduous CAPTCHA challenges.
Next, they have to browse a slow website to find a vendor and drug of their choice. To make a purchase, they must transfer bitcoins to their DNM account’s bitcoin wallet from a separate bitcoin wallet. Upon payment, the funds are held in an escrow account, which is controlled by the market. Funds are only released to the vendor – or “finalised” by the customer upon receipt of the goods – a few days later.
On a traditional DNM, vendors need to have human workers logged in online for as much of the day as possible, to accept and process orders. Their tasks include decrypting customers’ shipping addresses, preparing labels and packing drugs for postal delivery, marking packs’ shipment status and monitoring and updating stock levels to prevent purchases of sold-out product lines. Televend bots do all of this automatically.
Human workers on DNMs are required to manage cash-flow, withdrawing funds for deals that have been finalised. This last step is vital, since most DNMs control escrow accounts and can steal all vendors’ funds at any time, in a process known as an “exit scam”. The last such scam netted the operators of a market named Empire $300 million (£228 million).
“This is a breakthrough in solving the established and outdated principles of the darknet,” said @TelevendPR, a company representative. Televend bots are not based on the standard Telegram bot code API, but are coded entirely by the Televend team, the rep told VICE News.
Once Telegram users have added Televend as a contact and navigated their way through a couple of stages, they find a list of vendors selling every drug imaginable. After tapping on a vendor they trust or recognise, they reach the vendor’s storefront, which is staffed 24/7 by robots.
That process is also automated, with the bot updating stock levels and creating invoices, which are paid by customers in bitcoin directly to vendors’ wallets. No intermediary or “escrow” account is involved. Once a bot confirms payment has cleared, the vendor is informed. Vendors log in whenever they choose, with all back-end admin already taken care of by bots. Vendors decrypt and print off customer addresses, then package up the drugs for postal delivery – with the money already in their wallets.
Televend says it launched the service to protect users’ funds from market-owner theft, and in response to police and hacker actions, known as DDoS attacks, which have often locked customers and vendors out for days. Televend charges a commission on all sales in advance, on a sliding scale of up to 4 percent.
“We decided to innovate and protect users from exit scams and DDoS attacks,” said the representative. “In our case, this factor is completely excluded. The customer can make an order at any time without interruptions.”
One downside is the level of security compared to traditional DNMs, where some anonymity is offered – but not guaranteed – through the use of practices such as PGP encryption for customer addresses. Unlike DNMs, which are only accessible via the Tor browser, Telegram and Televend can be accessed over standard web connections or mobile networks. This means users can be identified easily, especially if they use their regular phone, whose data is tied to their offline identity. Telegram and Televend robots are not automatically or easily routed through the anonymising Tor network on iPhones, due to Apple restrictions. Android users report greater ease of use, while desktop access offers Mac users greater flexibility.
However, security isn’t everything, according to Patrick Shortis, a cryptomarkets expert of the University of Manchester: “Many users will opt for convenience over security when it comes to trading. Having strong security features has never been the best predictor of a market's success.”
Televend is not operated or authorised by Telegram, and the firm does not profit from it. VICE News approached Telegram for comment before publication but did not receive a response.