We are in April 2020 and Matthieu1 is severely bored. In addition to being stuck at home by the epidemic, the young man is on partial unemployment. To spend the days, he decides to start smoking cannabis, which until then he had had occasional, “recreational” use. Where can you find the product when almost no one goes outside? Friends bring him the solution on a plate: they have just received a message on the Snapchat application. After three weeks of radio silence, one of their dealers started home delivery. “On Sunday, he warned half an hour before coming to my place, he wore an Ubereats or Deliveroo suit,” says Matthieu. The delivery man goes so far as to send his temperature to his customers to prove that he is not sick. He even respects the quarantine period then in effect of 14 days between two tours. Matthew still seems to be hallucinating when he tells this story. This is also my case when writing it.
We talk a lot about deal points in town. It has been several months that I have also wondered about the reality and the extent of the sale of drugs via social networks in Rennes. Like most journalists, I have my own addiction: Twitter. What we often see there leaves one wondering. Some evenings, the platform turns into a virtual showcase of an illegal industry. Under the keyword #Rennes, classic publications are regularly buried between two photos of all kinds of products offered for delivery. What is behind these accounts? To find out, I decided, in agreement with Le Mensuel, to put myself in the shoes of a consumer who would seek to obtain drugs online. So I started by getting ripped off.
On March 30, I get started by writing to one of the many contacts available on Twitter. Immediate response: “What do you want as a variety?” – Weed, ”I answer, suspecting that using the term“ cannabis leaves ”would seriously damage my credit… Illico, I get the rates. From € 100 for 15 g up to € 800 for 125 g, which corresponds to market prices 2. All accompanied by an endless list of varieties whose names mean absolutely nothing to me. Between White Widow, AK47 and Lemon Haze, I’m a bit lost. The interlocutor explains to me that the payment must be made in advance because he does not know me. I was insisted on buying a Transcash code in a tobacconist or on the Internet.
The Transcash system looks a bit like the “credit” of the first cell phones. We bought 5, 10, or 20 € and we received the equivalent in communication time. The difference here is that the code is used to load the money onto a payment card. “It smacks of a scam,” I point out shyly. “No, poto (sic), it’s square”. I must be clear about it. After receiving the code, it confirms me. This same March 30, at the appointed time, I wait dubiously at the address I had given, at Les Colombiers, when my phone rang. “I’m on the road there, but I had a puncture, you should send me € 20”. I decide to stop the charges but still try to obtain information by revealing my own deception to him. He never answered me again.
An hour and a half later
Expecting to run into a scammer, I started another lead, via a well-known encrypted messaging app. I was told about one of its features that allows you to see other users around. In the list of connected people, I find in a few seconds an unequivocal name. The profile picture proclaims: “New delivery service in Rennes, our team is in place to meet your needs”. At the first message, I am referred to the thread of a group conversation. There, an unknown world is revealed. Since mid-February, the date of the start of the discussion, several dozen messages have been published. Some were seen by nearly 500 people. It looks like a version 2.0 of tele-shopping, but without Marie-Ange Nardi. Videos of products offered for sale, testimonials from satisfied customers, promotional offers, stock clearance… Everything is there.
My order of 50 € of resin is processed after five messages. This time, I didn’t have to pay up front. And an hour and a half later, at the bottom of a building in the Colombiers, at the address I had given, a man arrives in a car. A simple knowing glance is enough to recognize us. Nod, summary hello. I pass the money through the lowered window. He hands me the goods, a 5 g bar whose strong smell leaves no doubt.
Curious, I strike up a conversation by asking him if they think they can continue for a long time. “We’ll see,” he blurted out laconically, looking away. I understand that the conversation ends there. The man leaves. I stay on the sidewalk with, in my hand, a bag with hash, purple, the image of a Homer Simpson in ecstasy on his front. They know a thing or two about marketing. The drug will be handed over to the authorities, not without having first photographed it from every angle.
Under the radars
The speed and ease of the process is disconcerting. A few messages and I am served. Other questions arise: online dealer, is it as easy as it sounds? How big is the demand for delivery to Rennes? We decide to take the experience further. This time, the idea is to pass myself off as a drug delivery man for a week, using the same techniques. Of course, I won’t have anything to sell and won’t ask for money. I’ll make up an excuse once the appointment is made. Here, at random, I will say that I punctured a tire on the road.
First, this question: how do traffickers go incognito on the web? I search the forums where tips and tricks are exchanged to get under the Big Brother radars. It is difficult to achieve it completely, they say, but there are means within my reach. Buy a prepaid SIM card, in a tobacconist and with cash because a payment by credit card is traceable. Use a VPN, software that hides the IP address, the equivalent of an identity card on the web. All sites also recommend using an encrypted mailbox, registering with a false identity. What name, by the way, am I going to use? Thus was born WalterWeed35. You might have recognized the Breaking Bad tribute. The main character of this series, Walter White, an American family man without history, becomes a drug dealer to pay for his cancer treatment. The parallel jumps out at me.
Five “clients” in one week
Hidden by this alias, I in turn created an account on a well-known social network. A message offering my services, accompanied by a photo, will be sent automatically on the web, every day, approximately every hour. For the customers who will contact me, I create a standard message with the prices, aligned with those of my competitors. A week goes by. Disappointment. I am empty-handed. The network, it, faithful to its reputation of moderation at least, leaves me against a royal peace. My publications may be explicit, my account will never be suspended.
The other device put in place works better. Thanks to my prepaid SIM card, which gives me a new phone number, I can subscribe to encrypted messaging, the one with which I managed to be delivered. I stay connected permanently under the name WalterWeed35, a nickname sufficiently explicit to attract the barge, obviously not enough for the moderators to put me in the wheels. This time it works. In one week, five potential clients contacted me. Two send me a clear order, the others prospect. Admittedly, the fishing seems a little thin, but, I did not really push on the commercial plan. Despite that, if I had been a real dealer, my new activity would have allowed me to achieve 300 € in turnover. Starting from scratch and in a week, it’s not nothing. Even more instructive, my last “buyer” got wind of my existence thanks to the first one. Word of mouth is already starting to work after just seven days. An essential element in the operation of traffic on social networks, confirms a source.
We are still in a stammering phase
Snapchat, an app popular with young people, is a good illustration of this particularity. It is on this social network that a good part of the deliveries is concluded. Too bad it was difficult for me to exploit it. A bit like Facebook, on Snapchat, you have to add friends and they accept your invitation. I had no address book. Over time, traffickers build up a veritable network of customers there, which operates in a closed circle. Consumers, for their part, are passing the name of the accounts to themselves. “A delivery man, the most cautious that I have seen, first asked to warn him when someone was sent to him, otherwise he would refuse him on Snapchat,” explains a former follower of these services. Today, this delivery man would have stopped his activities. “But he passed his account to another guy, who takes care of the intermediary with the supplier.” After marketing efforts, this is another point in common with legal activities. A bit like a real business, the accounts, and the contacts that go with them, change hands. And can be expensive: some SIM cards, full of customer numbers, can be exchanged for € 30,000 in Rennes, revealed Le Mensuel in May 2020.
Seven years in prison
Here ends the short life of WalterWeed35. The digitization of traffic in Rennes seems to be starting. “The various confinements have been favorable to this practice but are still in a nascent phase,” suggests Guillaume Pavic, local coordinator of the Trend3 network, attached to the French Observatory for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Ordering via social networks would still represent a drop of water compared to the mass sold in traditional deal points. In the largest French metropolises, the phenomenon is already well established, about five years after having appeared there. “In Rennes too, this uberization could become more dominant in the future because the model is very operational, as we can see in other legal activities,” points out Guillaume Pavic.
However, the observer admits difficulties in obtaining information. “This is an observation that we share with the police: everything happens discreetly via ephemeral messages where it is difficult to identify the actors”. End-to-end content encryption makes it harder for law enforcement. This does not prevent it from sometimes bringing down networks. In July, the man at the head of a regional service was tried by the Rennes Criminal Court. The 30-year-old, with 400 clients and an estimated profit of € 200,000, operated mainly in Côtes-d’Armor and Finistère. Virtual service but very real consequences: he is serving a seven-year prison sentence.
1. The first name has been changed.
2. Report of the French Observatory for Drugs and Drug Addiction, December 2019
3. Recent trends and new drugs
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