M. offers ketamine, coke and MDMA. He is waiting for customers in front of a government building in a Berlin neighborhood where thousands of tourists pass by every day. He tells Telegram how to find him. We also discovered him there. “The shop is very lucrative,” says the dealer, asking to remain anonymous in the article.
“Who got Crystal for me in Schöneberg?”, “Coca in Berlin Pankow NOW???”, “Search Mephedron around the Warsaw street” – that’s how it looks in one of the closed groups for the town of Berlin where drugs are sold on Telegram.
Around 2,000 people are members of the Berlin Telegram Group, in which M. also finds his customers. More than 100 messages a day are sent to the group, most of them requests. Some members like M. sell themselves. The dealer says he can charge higher prices on Telegram than on Darknet. But he delivers the goods for Berliners on the same day. If you urgently need something, just chat it up. Is he not afraid of being exposed? He denies it. Only people you can trust be invited to his telegram group.
Many simply use Telegram as an alternative to WhatsApp, a practical messenger with emojis and stickers. But for people like M., Telegram is more than that: The chat app has become an alternative to Darknet in some areas, a place for illegal business that is hardly noticed by the public.
Welcome to the alternative to Darknet: the black market of Telegram
We have researched how the branched black market works on Telegram. The research shows: In dozens of channels and groups on Telegram, hundreds of illegal offers can be found. Not only drug dealers advertise their goods here. They also offer access data to hacked accounts for Netflix, Spotify and Fortnite. In other channels users can download movies for free.
The chat app is particularly practical for customers and dealers: the storage is free, there are no lame websites with annoying pop-ups. Anyone can anonymously open channels, offer goods and write with others. In groups all members chat with one another, in Channels only the founder can write messages and the subscribers are quiet readers. For the research we switch off the notifications on the Smartphone, because daily hundreds of messages come in, with Emojis and pictures promoted offers from the black market of Telegram.
We entered the black market within a few hours. First there were public channels, which can be found by search terms in the app. Telegram offers an internal search function for this. However, it provides only three results per query. Channels can be found more effectively via special online directories or the Google search. We then continued step by step through recommendations posted in these channels. Many channels are networked with each other and advertise each other. Soon Telegram no longer looked like the WhatsApp alternative for a friendly chat in between, but like a Darknet shop in Messenger format.
“Better than driving a coke taxi.” Why drug dealers rely on Telegram
In Berlin, drugs have been offered in closed telegram groups for at least five years. That’s how long there should be at least the oldest group discovered by us, as users us tell in the chat.
Who ever wants to buy drugs simply posts his request and his approximate location in the group. One of the many mobile dealers in Berlin then contacts the member via private chat and arranges a meeting. The admin of the group keeps their mouth shut when we write to him. Only who has problems with a Dealer, can turn to them – the person concerned is then immediately removed from the group, users report.
Dealer M. in front of the Berlin administration building is very satisfied with Telegram. It is Tuesday afternoon and he has just sold Ketamine again. His customers know exactly where to find him, no long searching, no uncertain looks. “It’s very easy for me, I hardly have to move around,” he says. We found him because he himself offered his services garnished with funny Emojis in the group: “Today again fresh coke, keta, XTC from the Netherlands!!!”. With chat messages like this, he immediately reaches thousands of people who are looking for something near him. One private message is enough and the dealer tells you how and where to meet him.
He agrees to a little interview as long as we don’t reveal any more information about him. He has only been using the Telegram Group for customer acquisition for a few months now. “It’s better than driving a coke taxi,” he says. “I can also take higher prices. Of course there are also peak times on Telegram: “Friday evenings and Sunday mornings are the busiest days,” he says.
Is he not afraid of the police? “Oh, what,” he says. “The admin only lets people into the group who are genuinely interested and I know what a civilian cop looks like.” A quite naive attitude. Because to get into his group, all you need is an invitation link – and who knows if the group hasn’t already been infiltrated a long time ago.
“We are familiar with the phenomenon of drug trafficking via the messenger service Telegram,” says Georg Ungefuk, spokesman for the Zentralstelle zur Bekämpfung der Internetkriminalität (ZIT) – the German cybercrime agency – at the Frankfurt public prosecutor’s office. His authority has observed that sales via chat often run parallel to trade via a Darknet platform, according to Ungefuk. On Telegram, as on other encrypted platforms, it is only possible to investigate to a very limited extent. That’s why ZIT and other authorities rely on undercover investigators just as they do on the Darknet.
Why do customers and dealers rely on Telegram at all?
One reason could be the positive image of Telegram. The company is regarded as secretive. The company founded in Russia does not reveal exactly where its offices and servers are located. It reacts evasively to requests from the media and police authorities. Telegram founder Pavel Durov even went into exile out of concern for Russian investigators.
There are probably also a few technical features that make Telegram attractive despite everything: The contact between customers and dealers is anonymous. In contrast to WhatsApp, other users do not see each other’s phone numbers. Telegram stores the photos of the drugs it offers on its servers.
This is practical for dealers, because they don’t have to set up their own web shop to market their products, where a bad configured server could disclose the server’s location, eventually leading to a bust of the owner.
Apparently, these advantages outweigh the benefits for some dealers: we found a total of eight local telegram groups for drug trafficking. We have not only found groups for Berlin, but groups for several other major European cities, including the Amsterdam in the Netherlands and London. The groups have between 120 and 5,500 members. In the chats, the dealers post pictures of big bags full of ecstasy tablets and kilograms of heroin. The dealers write, however, that the goods are not sent out, but brought by car.
Several well-known names of Darknet dealers also appear in the telegram groups – probably no coincidence. Recently, the police in the Netherlands blew up several large Darknet markets. But it is difficult to check whether the dealers in hiding actually switch to Telegram or whether imitators use their names.
But even if some star-dealer from the darknet are active on telegram: The hyperlocal Telegram deals we found are far away from competing with the systematic Darknet trade, which also supplies major customers worldwide thanks to Bitcoin payments and postal services. And even all Darknet black markets together account for only a fraction of Europe-wide drug turnover: It is estimated that the classic drug trade without the Internet has an annual turnover of 28 billion dollars. For comparison: on the Wall Street Market, the largest Darknet black market until its shutdown, only around 40 million euros were turned over each year.
Will messengers become the next major scene of online crime after the recent busts on the Darknet? Several reports by security researchers suggest this. They draw a direct connection between the end of large Darknet marketplaces and the steady influx in telegram groups. In addition to drugs, other illegal goods will also be offered there – such as pirated movies.
“Who cares about copyright?”
Customers don’t need any money for Telegram’s film exchanges, the feature films are given away for free. A touch with your finger is enough to download a film file directly from the Telegram channel. No comparison to dubious streaming websites with broken links, advertising banners and jerky players. Telegram offers the necessary storage space free of charge as long as a single file is not larger than 1.5 gigabytes. This is more than enough for a film. Best conditions for a free film exchange.
It is quite clear that anyone who shares and downloads these copyrighted films may be liable to prosecution in Germany. But the film fans on Telegram don’t seem to be itching. We were able to find at least 20 channels with sometimes 6,100, sometimes 1.5 million subscribers within a few minutes. The films are mainly offered in Hindi or English. On a channel with 1.5 million subscribers a film appears almost daily for download. Often there are new blockbusters like Captain Marvel and Detective Pikachu, but also classics like Scary Movie. The Outline reported on stolen films on Telegram for the first time in 2018. But why do people give away films on Telegram at all?
We ask a user who is listed as admin on 17 Telegram channels. On Telegram he has the name of a well-known superhero, but doesn’t want that name to become public. So let’s call him Daredevil. Together, his channels have about 6.5 million subscribers. How many of them are fake accounts can’t be determined. Daredevil introduces himself as a student from India – and wants to have found a way to profit from the free films. “I didn’t start it to make money,” writes Daredevil. But now he does.
He earns around 100,000 rupees a month, the equivalent of around 1,300 euros. Whether the sums are right cannot be checked. At least his business model sounds conclusive: The money comes from other Telegram users who promote their channels to him in order to win subscribers themselves. In fact, there are advertising posters on the student’s film channels that link to the channels of other operators. Apparently, a black market for advertisements has also emerged on Telegram’s black market. Is the film industry even aware of this?
It’s hard to imagine that Telegram is not noticing when channels with thousands of movie files collect hundreds of thousands of subscribers.Daredevil – Administrator of a Telegram channel for films
Yeah, he gets copyright complaints once in a while, says Daredevil. He has already had to remove more than 100 films, and once even one of his channels was deleted. But that doesn’t stop him. “People in India love free films and find my channels,” he writes. Many people can’t afford the films legally. We have asked several large US film studios whether they know that their films are distributed for free on Telegram. If we get an answer, we will update this article.
Another film channel on Telegram, with around 100,000 subscribers, has no advertisements at all. In a conversation with us, the operator explains that he does not want to earn any money with Telegram. “Uploading films is like a hobby for me,” he writes in English. He fled Syria to Iraq in 2013 and now works for a car company. In the beginning he posted the films for his Syrian friends to provide them with English-language films and series after their escape. Now he enjoys doing tens of thousands of people a favor. A modern Robin Hood. But is the story true?
Hard to say. The fact is: The oldest post on the channel is from the beginning of 2016, and the film that was uploaded illegally at that time is still available. In total there are more than 650 films on the channel. Aren’t you worried about the police? “Who cares about copyright here,” he asks. Nobody has complained to him yet. And if Telegram were to close his channel one day, he would send the films to his friends personally.
It’s hard to imagine Telegram not noticing when channels with thousands of film files collect hundreds of thousands of subscribers. We asked Telegram about it – and received no answer. While users like Daredevil are busy giving away films, other Telegram dealers are trying to profit from the demand for entertainment.
Spotify, Netflix, ‘Fortnite’: At the bazaar for cracked accounts
The largest network of channels and groups we have discovered is a bazaar for several products. There is nothing to see of drugs or stolen movies. They offer Likes, Views and Follower for Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok. Other vendors offer to get their customers a blue tick on Instagram, the coveted sign for a verified account, for money. Payment? PayPal.
Also advertised is account data, i.e. user names and passwords, for paid services such as Netflix, Hulu and Spotify Premium. Behind this are often real users who have no idea that somewhere in the world someone else is using their account. For a few dollars, customers can secretly stream Netflix and listen to Spotify at the expense of a hacked person. But that’s not advisable, because whoever does that could commit several crimes at once – for example, fraud and data theft.
According to the Criminal Penal Code, fraud is punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine; data fraud is punishable by up to three years. “If the perpetrators are in the European Union, a conviction is possible,” estimates Beata-Konstanze Hubrig, a lawyer specialising in Internet law.
But: No one can guarantee that buyers on Telegram really get something when they pay something. Clever traders simply keep the money and do nothing. Even the darknet is more transparent. There shops have a rating system, similar to Amazon, where users are allowed to write a review after the purchase. So the black market in Darknet regulates itself and buyers don’t have to blindly trust a dealer. With Telegram, things are different.
“Be careful, there are scammers here,” warns us the operator of a Telegram channel on which illegal access data is offered. He doesn’t want to see his Telegram name in an article, so we call him Rashid. Rashid explains that we should never shop on Telegram without a middleman. Only he can tell us which offers are trustworthy. And of course, Rashid, he is such a middleman.
“I don’t want to end up LIKE an idiot selling drugs in Darknet”Rashid – Middleman on Telegram
We ask Rashid how best to find black market channels, after all, Telegram’s search function gives few results. Rashid explains that Telegram users exchange lists with each other with the most important information. A few seconds later he sends us such a list: It contains 115 Telegram channels and groups, which are teeming with offers with likes, views and obviously hijacked accounts. Also some self-proclaimed middlemen are on the way there, they identify themselves with the abbreviation “MM”. Later, such an “MM” will also offer us such a list, but for 25 dollars. No, thank you.
The system with the lists reminds of the Darknet. Similar to telegram channels, Darknet websites are not easy to find with a search engine. So lists with links to Darknet websites circulate. Why doesn’t Rashid do business in Darknet right away? “I don’t want to end up an idiot selling drugs in Darknet,” he says. Telegram he finds “cleaner”. But he doesn’t want to go to the usual Internet either. “You have to pay for websites, you have to do search engine optimization,” says Rashid. Telegram is free. Is the business worth it for him?
You don’t get rich. Rashid has been active on Telegram for two years, now he is 19 years old. He lives in the Middle East and saves the money he earns in order to become self-employed later with online trading. Rashid is already one of the older traders on Telegram. Another dealer tells us that he is 14 and lives with his parents in Dubai. The parents knew about his trading with accounts and were “cool with it”.
One year Netflix is offered for the equivalent of 18 euros.
Some traders even give away hacked account data and post it publicly in telegram chat. Within seconds, we found dozens of combinations of usernames and passwords for Netflix, Fortnite and Spotify accounts. The openly posted access data are probably to be understood as appetizers. Customers can find out in this way that they can really log into a foreign account. However, platforms like Netflix often notice when suddenly masses of users access one and the same account and block the account in question.
Merchants like Rashid are advertising by the fact that their paid access data really do last a long time. For example, Rashid wants to guarantee at least three months of Hulu premium for three dollars. Legally, customers would have to pay six times as much. His 14-year-old competitor from Dubai offers Netflix a year for the equivalent of 18 euros; legal access would cost around 96 euros. How do the dealers get all the access data?
“I buy them cheap,” says Rashid. But he doesn’t want to reveal more information. Past research has drawn a more accurate picture. Online criminals gain access data through phishing attacks, for example. They also try data from public password leaks. Often enough people use passwords multiple times, and so old data leaks often contain valid credentials for other platforms. Over time, thousands of accesses for Netflix and other platforms can be collected in this way – and sold to customers like Rashid.
We asked Netflix and Spotify how they are tackling access trading and how many accounts are being blocked. Spotify doesn’t want to comment on this at the moment,” a spokesperson said this via e-mail. Netflix confirms: Yes, the company checks whether Netflix access data is distributed on the Internet, but does not go into Telegram in detail.
Telegram could block the blackmarket
Theoretically, Telegram could drastically reduce the black market on its own platform. At least when it comes to terrorism, the company proves that it can also comprehensively find and delete content: According to the company, channels that deal with Islamic terrorism are regularly removed. A bot published by Telegram itself informs about new terrorist channels being blocked; hundreds are blocked every day. In May of this year, there are said to have been around 8,300.
Telegram is also active when it comes to pornography: users of iPhones and iPads should not even be notified of telegram channels with porn, as Telegram founder Pavel Durov confirmed on Twitter in 2017. The reason for this is Apple’s strict guidelines. We were able to test this ourselves: several Telegram channels with porn images were not available on our test iPhone, but on the laptop they were. Here, too, the company shows that it can effectively search and block channels for content.
Telegram, on the other hand, seems to avoid the topic of black markets. It seems that as long as Telegram remains a largely unnoticed niche between Darknet and the Internet, people like Daredevil, Rashid and the dealers will continue to post their offers in Berlin’s party district.