Drugs dealers are now as common on social media as hashtags and hate. A 2019 DM for Details report by the drugs advocacy think tank Volteface found that 24 percent of young people have seen illegal drugs for sale on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. In 2021, another survey from the drugs education charity Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation found that 58 percent of 18-year-olds had seen narcotics sold online.
But how many of these online plugs are legit? On Monday, the drug information organisation Pill Report published a post about a “scamdemic” of fake dealer accounts on social media. (Full disclosure: I create content for PR on a freelance basis, but wasn’t involved with the research for this particular post.) Reddit already abounds with tales of people that have been scammed on Snapchat or Instagram, while a recent Twitter thread from a drugs analyst alluded to the apparently recent influx of spammy psychedelic vendors operating on Elon Musk’s new $44 billion Lego set. So how does the blag work and who’s getting scammed?
Jonny is 20 years old and lives in the Midlands. Like every other scam victim that VICE spoke to, he is speaking anonymously to protect his privacy. “I got followed on Instagram by an account with a couple of thousand followers,” he says. “I followed back. They were fairly active, posting good quality pictures of substances.”
After about a month, Jonny decided to message them on Instagram. The subsequent conversation – breezy and genial as demonstrated in screenshots below – transferred to WhatsApp, where Jonny agreed to pay £60 in Bitcoin for five tabs of LSD.
Then the deception deepened: “They wanted £20 more for postage, so I sent that.” When the vendor demanded an extra £60 for “delivery insurance” and refundable on receipt of goods, Jonny knew he was being scammed. He blocked the number and took the financial hit with tail wedged between legs.
When approached for comment, a Meta spokesperson said: “The buying and selling of drugs is not allowed on our platform and we work quickly to remove this content when we become aware of it.”
According to a recent report by UK Finance, a trade association for the UK financial services sector, criminals nabbed more than £1.3bn from online cons and scams in the UK during 2021. Of this, £583.2m was lost to authorised push payment fraud (essentially: whenever someone is deceived into making a payment). Online fraud – in all forms - has been blooming like autumnal liberty caps, and this drug-related grift is just one thread in the web helping it to flourish.
Jonny’s experience is emblematic of a classic social media dealer scam. Manish, 38, recounts a similar story of being followed by an Instagram account, with a bio link to a Telegram group which had around 8,000 subscribers. “There were lots of pictures with different types of smoke [cannabis] they supposedly had in stock, with menu options in terms of quality and deals on each.” He “took a punt” and transferred Bitcoin to the dealer’s Revolut account, including a €20 delivery fee.
“He came back an hour later, very apologetic, saying the deal wasn't big enough for the boss and could I bump up the order to €200 worth – but he would make it worth my while with a bit extra. I reluctantly did so. After that all I got was radio silence and was then immediately blocked from all their Instagram and Telegram accounts.”
Manish had previous experience of buying high quality products online before. “I got complacent and he seemed so genuine,” he says. “I felt so stupid, especially paying up the second lot.”
Pill Report executive director James Morsh says that these scams “have been around for years on all social media platforms. Whilst some advertise the sale of recreational substances, others specialise in Forex trading, crypto, fake driving licenses and other scams. But we noticed a significant increase of these ‘dealer’ accounts over the last two years.”
Reddit has long been a hub for scammers. Cyrillio, an r/Drugs moderator who keeps the forum ticking over for its 915,000 followers, says: “In conversations with admins, it’s been made clear that more work is being put in to preventing people from being scammed [not just when it comes to drugs, but all types of fraud targeting Redditors]. Me and other moderators have noticed that people trying to scam others by messaging them and offering to sell drugs are getting banned more quickly and effectively.” When contacted by VICE, Reddit directed us to their Content Policy, which stipulates that the platform cannot be used to solicit or facilitate the sale of drugs.
“A lot of the [fake] accounts are run by the same people,” Morsh says. “They use the same photos and when one person falls for a scam – another account by the same scammer will follow them as they know that person is vulnerable.” He knows of several cases like this and has seen multiple scam accounts redirecting potential victims to a core Telegram group. “These are organised – sophisticated, in their own way.”
Morsh also speculates that many are using software to operate on social media. Andrew Gillard, a moderator of the harm reduction website and forum Bluelight, also says that a lot of the initial messages come from bots. “That message [typically a “hey mate” into your inbox with a menu or Telegram link] will have been sent to many accounts – once it detects a level of activity, a person then takes over. You can tell when this happens very easily because the writing style changes.”
Megan Townsend of Volteface suggests we’re dealing with an evolved version of the fake “Nigerian prince” email scams that still cram the junk folders of boomers’ Outlook accounts. “It’s transformed for the younger generation who would read that email and know it’s rubbish,” the criminology student says. She also lists TikTok, Discord and Snapchat as fertile grounds for vulnerable, green kids seeking, well, green: “They [the scammers] target places where young people concentrate themselves.”
Chris, a volunteer with multiple drugs-related organisations and speaking under provision of anonymity, tells me that some vendors moved from the darkweb to encrypted messaging services like Telegram to mitigate the risk of exit scams (see: the 2020 disappearance of marketplace Empire, which ran off with $30m of vendors’ and customers’ money), or authority shutdowns where money in escrow is seized. This is good news for their trusted, drug-savvy clientele. But for some users, it’s hard to differentiate between a legit vendor, and scammers accruing new victims with Twitter keyword searches, or who have just siphoned the followers of established scam Instagram accounts.
“The tricky thing about buying drugs on the internet is that it makes sense for both parties to attempt to screw the other over,” says Patrick Shortis, a researcher at the University of Manchester who specialises in darknet markets. “And whilst escrow systems on crypto markets mitigate that problem – [albeit] without perfectly solving it – you don’t really have any of those protections in place for Telegram or Instagram.”
Shortis points out the presence of closed Telegram groups that “vouch” for individual vendors, so the buyer can be more certain that their goods will arrive: “But Telegram is not easy to navigate without practice and finding reliable vendors if you don’t know what to look for can be a mess.”
Telegram told VICE that it “has actively moderated harmful content on its platform – including the sale of illegal substances. Our moderators proactively monitor public parts of the app as well as accepting user reports that breaches our tests.”
So how can you tell a badman from a man with bag? After all, there are some reliable dealers on social media. Genuinely nice and kind people you’d enjoy a continental lager with. One recurring message from the experts is: If a vendor messages you first, then it’s a scam. A very well-connected individual we speak to says: “On Telegram, if you found a group by searching and not being added by a friend, it’s probably a scam. And if even you are on a big closed Telegram group, don’t ask: ‘Who’s selling X in my area?’ Because you will get scammed.”
And what about those accounts that randomly follow you on IG, plump with tantalising pictures of every pill and powder imaginable and boasting thousands of followers with screenshots of glowing reviews? “They mean absolutely nothing,” says our connect. You heard it here first.