You might have heard whispers a few years back about the shocking ease of buying illegal drugs from complete strangers over Instagram. And you probably assumed that it would be a short-term run, right? Wrong. Totally wrong. 

Well, there have been a few attempts to clean it up. The DEA teamed up with the FBI in early 2015 and rounded up 350 dealers and $7 million in “merchandise”. Dealers who were being careless got taken, like this cocky guy who accidentally geotagged (!) his drug and gun warehouse.

But it seems like this sting only separated the weak from the strong. There have been a few busts since, but no serious measures have been taken to end these shenanigans. It’s been six years since Instagram’s debut and it’s still just as simple to pick up all manner of uppers and downers from complete strangers. It looks like business will not be slowing down any time soon – these dealers are just too damn sneaky.

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Here’s how it works. Dealers tag photos and videos of their goods with the latest codename for whatever they’re selling. Anyone who can track down those hashtags can browse pills and buds at their leisure, as if choosing from the photo menu at the neighborhood diner. Once you find what you’re after, you contact the dealer, and they’ll ship it straight to your door.

It sounds too simple, right? Why aren’t these guys getting caught?

First, they’ve got the limitless world of hashtags. When Instagram turned into the new Silk Road, dealers settled on a few hashtags that served as channels into this social media underworld. Instagram feebly tried to fight back by banning these tags, but a whole new wave of codes just sprung back: for example, #nodsquad became #nodsquadd and then #nodsquaddd.

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Another degree of secrecy is added by the presence of equally anonymous messaging and payment services. Dealers list burner phone numbers or burner emails in their profiles or opt for a service like Kik messenger, which allows sign-up without identification. Payment is then made with an untraceable money transfer or Bitcoin transaction, and shipping is done speedily through a delivery service, or sometimes even USPS.

You may be thinking that there has to be a lot of openings for scammers within all these layers, and you’d be right. But apparently, the Instagram drug community watches each other’s backs – dozens of accounts have been opened with the express purpose of calling out fake dealers. Due to this almost touching camaraderie, the drug market on Instagram has become fairly self-regulated.

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There are still a few bumbling dealers who get caught by being sloppy, but most of the peddlers out there are just tech-savvy enough to keep a few light-footed steps ahead of the institutions who are trying to catch them. With a cheap “burner” laptop, an operating system emulator, and a VPN, it’s easy to make your activity on Instagram perfectly untraceable.

Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, has had little to say on the subject. When questioned, they insist that because the transactions do not actually take place on Instagram, they shouldn’t be held responsible for them. Their primary strategy has been to encourage people to report posts or users who are violating their terms of use. However, these terms are pretty vague. From Instagram’s Community Guidelines: If your photos or videos are promoting the sale of regulated goods or services, including firearms, alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, and adult products, please ensure that you know and are following the law that applies to you.”

Let’s review: it’s easy to get started dealing drugs over Instagram, it’s not technically a violation of the rules to post images of the drugs, the transactions take place over second and third levels of anonymous online communications, and the ambiguity and shape-shifting nature of these hashtags gives everyone a lot of wiggle room. Looks like this shady marketplace will be lurking under our photos of sunsets and brunch for a long time to come.

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