Mid­dle-class drug deal­ers: the dark side of Snapchat

As one mother dis­cov­ered, it’s not just vul­ner­a­ble in­ner-city teenagers be­ing groomed by drug gangs. Sally Howard re­ports

The Sunday Telegraph - - Feature & Arts - This rep­re­sents cannabis

It was a chance scan of her iPhone that alerted Kate Mans­field, 43, to her 14-year-old son Daniel’s* par­al­lel life. “He’d left [mes­sag­ing app] Snapchat open, and a mes­sage popped up which took me to a pic­ture of a ta­ble cov­ered with what looked like mar­i­juana,” says Kate, a north Lon­don­based re­la­tion­ship coach. The text ac­com­pa­ny­ing the im­age made it plain: “Hey man, come and help us shift this weed.”

Kate was al­ready wor­ried that some­thing was up with her for­merly “bright and ex­tro­vert” son. In re­cent months Daniel had be­come moody and with­drawn, grav­i­tat­ing to “grime” mu­sic with lyrics which, to Kate’s ears – “and I say this as a youn­gat-heart mum who’s not eas­ily shocked” – cen­tred, alarm­ingly, on vi­o­lent crime and sell­ing drugs.

She had searched Daniel’s school­bag and found tell­tale pun­gent green leaves, and small, empty re­seal­able bags of the type of­ten used to carry cannabis. “When I con­fronted him with the ev­i­dence he told me I was be­ing para­noid and ridicu­lous,” she says.

Con­vinced he was fall­ing in with the wrong crowd, Kate con­fis­cated his smart­phone, which led to sev­eral weeks of con­flict, with Daniel smash­ing doors and beg­ging to be re­united with his de­vice.

“Smart­phones are teenagers’ en­tire world,” Kate says, “it’s where they keep up with their friends and where so­cial ar­range­ments are made. There are no youth groups any more. Los­ing their phones feels like a be­reave­ment.”

The in­crim­i­nat­ing mes­sages from Daniel’s covert use of Snapchat on Kate’s phone con­firmed her worst fears: deal­ers were try­ing to sell him drugs.

Kate drove, ev­i­dence in-hand, to her lo­cal po­lice sta­tion: but when she opened the app to show the in­ter­view­ing of­fi­cer, she could find no trace of the mes­sages.

By chance an­other one popped up while she was at the sta­tion, then dis­ap­peared as well – Snapchat servers, she now knows, are de­signed to au­to­mat­i­cally delete all mes­sages, or “Snaps”, as soon as they’ve been viewed by the re­cip­i­ent.

“I was told that there was lit­tle the po­lice could do with­out ev­i­dence,” says Kate, who is sep­a­rated from Daniel’s fa­ther. “I felt my son was be­ing pulled into this world and no one was tak­ing me se­ri­ously.

Things were to get worse. A cou­ple of months later, with Daniel’s aca­demic per­for­mance slip­ping, Kate was called into his school. The deputy head had been shown a video that was do­ing the rounds on so­cial me­dia of Daniel and two friends sell­ing cannabis to a group of chil­dren in the school lava­to­ries. The po­lice were called in but found no ev­i­dence of Co­caine, crack or crys­tal meth drugs – the group only nar­rowly es­caped ex­clu­sion af­ter Daniel claimed the video was a prank.

It was only through grilling Daniel at home that she dis­cov­ered there was more to it. He had been tar­geted in a method in­creas­ingly typ­i­cal of city gangs, who groom teens with large so­cial me­dia fol­low­ings – and gen­er­ous spend­ing al­lowances – and lock them into ponzi-style in­debt­ed­ness schemes, forc­ing them to act as fran­chise deal­ers at school.

As a pop­u­lar so­cial me­dia user, with 1,000-plus fol­low­ers on Snapchat and In­sta­gram, Daniel had been con­tacted by a youngish man (you can talk di­rectly to Snapchat mem­bers you aren’t “friends” with by com­ment­ing on their posts) and of­fered a free tester of skunk to “share with his friends”.

“That’s the way these gangs do it,” Kate says. “First they say the drugs are free, then they tell the kids that they owe the gang hun­dreds, so they have to sell for them, to re­pay what they owe.”

Last Mon­day, the Home Of­fice’s Se­ri­ous Vi­o­lence Strat­egy di­rectly linked Lon­don’s re­cent spike in knife crime with the groom­ing of young peo­ple fer­ry­ing Class A drugs.

A 2017 re­port by the All Party Par­lia­men­tary Group on Ru­n­away and Miss­ing Chil­dren and Adults warned that an in­creas­ing num­ber of chil­dren and young peo­ple from “sta­ble and eco­nom­i­cally bet­ter-off back­grounds” are also be­ing ex­ploited by crim­i­nal gangs and called for the risks of groom­ing and ex­ploita­tion to be taught in both pri­mary and sec­ondary schools.

Of­ten, teens are drawn in by a covert use of emo­jis. For the unini­ti­ated, a maple leaf rep­re­sents cannabis, a dol­lar sign drugs for sale, a fly­ing rocket a high po­tency, a light­ning bolt ec­stasy and a di­a­mond sym­bol denotes co­caine. While Daniel was never dragged in that deep, well-con­nected, well-to-do teenagers like him are key to gangs look­ing to sell drugs among school net­works, or via so­cial me­dia.

If Kate’s in­ter­ac­tion with the lo­cal po­lice had been frus­trat­ing, her at­tempts to get Snapchat to close down her son’s ac­count were “ag­o­nis­ing”. It took mul­ti­ple mes­sages be­fore she got through to the Cal­i­for­ni­abased com­pany, to in­form them that il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity was be­ing con­ducted on his ac­count and re­quest that it was closed down.

When asked to com­ment, a spokesper­son for Snapchat said: “Ev­ery sin­gle one of our poli­cies pro­hibit the use of Snapchat for il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity. We have ded­i­cated teams that work around the clock to en­force those poli­cies and to re­spond to re­quests from law en­force­ment. We en­cour­age all Snapchat­ters to re­port any­thing to us that doesn’t be­long on Snapchat, in­clud­ing by us­ing our new in-app re­port­ing tools.”

Labour MP Ann Cof­fey, for­mer chair of the All Party Par­lia­men­tary Group on Ru­n­away and Miss­ing Chil­dren and Adults, would like to see a This in­di­cates ec­stasy or MDMA is avail­able statu­tory body set up to mon­i­tor so­cial me­dia plat­forms.

“The po­lice can’t po­lice the in­ter­net,” she says, “it’s too vast a task. How­ever, tools such as AI and ad­vanced search en­gines make it pos­si­ble for so­cial me­dia plat­forms such as Snapchat to much more ef­fec­tively po­lice abuse and ex­ploita­tion them­selves. The Gov­ern­ment needs to en­cour­age them to do so.”

Vicki Shot­bolt, CEO of child dig­i­tal safety char­ity Par­ent Zone, says that par­ents should ex­er­cise par­tic­u­lar cau­tion in their chil­dren’s use of en­crypted and con­tent-delet­ing apps such as Snapchat and Con­fide (which If a dealer uses this, they have drugs for sale pre­vents re­cip­i­ents tak­ing screen­shots of their mes­sages).

“Apps like this are in­her­ently risky,” she says. “If any­thing goes wrong there isn’t go­ing to be a record any­one can ac­cess and you can’t rely on any mod­er­a­tion to step in.”

Daniel is still at school – though still with­out his smart­phone – and Kate has set up an on­line coun­selling net­work for par­ents af­fected by gang groom­ing and ad­dic­tion. She con­sid­ers her­self lucky that “my son’s now re­alised that this is a world he doesn’t want to be in”, say­ing only one in five teenagers re­cruited into UK gangs man­age to es­cape crim­i­nal life. “I’m a mid­dle-class par­ent with ac­cess to re­sources and my son has turned a cor­ner. How many other par­ents won’t have my luck?”

Kate can be con­tacted about her coun­selling group at kate­mans­field. com. If you or your child has been a vic­tim of crime through use of an on­line app, re­port it to po­lice on 101 or anony­mously to Crimes­top­pers on 0800 555 111.

* Some names have been changed

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Snapchat mother: Kate Mans­field fought to pro­tect her son from gangs

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