How Facebook scammers target people at risk of suicide
By Marco Silva
-------------------A BBC investigation has uncovered dozens of Facebook pages claiming to sell a deadly poison to people who are contemplating suicide. It's the work of scammers - but how do they operate?
It's late. I open WhatsApp and see a message from the dealer, claiming he can sell me deadly pills.
"Minimum order is 100g and it will cost you £150," he says. "We package discreetly and ship from Douala, Cameroon."
He wants to know where I am and how much I plan to order. I ask him whether the claims made on his page are to be believed: are his pills really lethal?
"It's true, but I hope you really know what you want," he says, "I just sell."
He tells me in great detail how I should use his pills and what they will supposedly do to me. He doesn't ask if I've sought help, try to dissuade me or make me think about the consequences my actions might have on my family and friends.
For him, this is just another transaction.
What he doesn't know is that I have no intention of taking my own life - or even of buying the deadly chemical he claims to be selling.
I already know he is a scammer. For weeks, I have been following his every move, mapping his online presence and investigating his shadowy business dealings.'We've been doing this for long'
It all started with a video I came across on Facebook, showing someone's hand opening a can containing a plastic bag filled with chunky white pills.
The seller was unequivocal on his Facebook page, describing his poison as "99% pure".
The chemical he claimed to be selling - which we have chosen not to name - does have industrial uses, some of which the seller listed on his page.
But among his promises of "competitive prices" and "fast delivery", I also found posts describing how his pills could be used by someone planning to take their own life.
Posing as a potential client, I started texting him. I wanted to see how far his lies would go.He promised me speedy delivery if I paid him using cryptocurrency - which would help him remain anonymous.
I said I was worried about the legality of the deal: in the UK, it is illegal to sell this particular chemical to anyone who does not hold a Home Office licence. But he told me it was no obstacle.
"We've been doing this for long," he wrote. "Rest assured, you will have your product."
At first, I thought the Facebook page was the work of a single fraudulent seller, but it soon became clear he was not alone.
I found more than 60 pages claiming to sell this particular poison, most of them openly promoting the pills as a tool for suicide.
"Are you buying [the pills] because you are tired of this life and you need [them] to end it?" asked one.
What exactly had I found?
"It fits into a wider picture that we're seeing not only with people trying to get access to chemicals and poisons for potential suicidal attempts, but also the wider recreational drug scene," says James Coulson, a reader in clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Cardiff University. "We're seeing a proliferation in the advertising and potential sale of illicit drugs online."
Greater demand for these chemicals would certainly explain the number of pages I was coming across. But, as I looked closer, I saw them for what they were: a scam.
I noticed that some of the posts I was seeing (often riddled with spelling mistakes) were repeated verbatim across several pages.
So were the photos - the same shots of powders, bottles, pills, and big blue barrels kept popping up again and again.
Then, bizarrely, I came across a handful of glowing reviews, like this one:
"[The pills] are promoted for suicide," says Lisa Sugiura, senior lecturer at the Institute for Criminal Justice Studies of the University of Portsmouth. "If people are coming back to review it, they're obviously not doing that with the product.
"They're fake accounts."
When I shared the evidence with the experts, their assessment was unanimous: the people running these Facebook pages are almost certainly scammers.
THE ANATOMY OF A SCAM
By creating a page devoted to this poison, the scammer effectively sets up a market stall that can easily be found on Facebook.
People feeling suicidal might search for the chemical and find these pages. But if they pay the sellers, the pills are never actually delivered. The dealer is exploiting vulnerable people for profit.
"It's very unlikely [the victims] are going to report it to law enforcement," says Jake Moore, a former police officer and cyber-security specialist at internet security company Eset.
The buyers might be asked questions they are simply not prepared to answer, such as: why were you trying to buy a deadly, highly regulated poison online?
"[The victims] feel that they're trapped," says Mr Moore. "They don't really know where to turn."