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'Snitches Get Stitches': How Secure Phones for Criminals Are Sold on Instagram

For years, the oft-overlooked secure phone industry, sometimes linked to organized crime, has been pushing its wares on Instagram, with one account linked to Phantom Secure posting images of weapons, drugs, and bundles of cash.

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Mar 12 2018, 3:32pm

Image: Instagram

On Saturday, Motherboard reported that the FBI has arrested the CEO of Phantom Secure, a company allegedly providing security-focused phones to international organized crime groups including the Sinaloa drug cartel. A key issue is whether Phantom deliberately created its product to help facilitate crime, which the criminal complaint alleges.

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As it turns out, a Phantom-linked Instagram account, used mostly for marketing the company’s products, isn't subtle when it comes to the organization’s alleged connection to crime; a brazen trend seen across the wider secure phone industry, too.

“Snitches get stitches,” one image, uploaded to Phantom PGP’s Instagram account, an apparent reseller of Phantom’s phones, reads. It is unclear whether this particular reseller or those operating other accounts advertising Phantom phones are connected to the recent charges against the main Phantom company and its owner.

Caption: A selection of posts on Phantom PGP's Instagram account. Image: Instagram

Phantom and a number of other companies in this space sell customized BlackBerry or Android devices, typically with the camera and microphone removed, as well as, in Phantom’s case, the GPS-tracking and ordinary internet browsing functionality. In place of texts or phone calls, Phantom’s phones route encrypted messages through the company’s own infrastructure.

“Proven. Reliable. Uncrackable. Benchmarked. Simply Secure,” another of Phantom PGP’s Instagram posts reads, along with one of the phones and the interior of a Bentley car in the background. Phantom PGP tries to push an image of luxury and exuberance, judging by other posts—attractive, scantily-clad models, landscape-shots from scenic hotels, and exotic pets all pepper the account. Although many of the photos appear to be lifted from other sources, with Phantom PGP just re-uploading the pictures for their own use, others do include original marketing material and images of the phones themselves.

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Got a tip? You can contact this reporter securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

But it’s the Instagram account’s crime-related images which are most audacious. A bizarre mix of assault rifles, bundles of cash, drugs, and inspirational memes.

“Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead,” one reads.

The account even includes images of iconic crime figures in film and TV, such as Scarface, Walter White from Breaking Bad, and Tony Soprano. All of this would probably be just slightly over-the-top and traditional marketing, if Phantom’s CEO wasn’t facing charges of racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to distribute narcotics, and aiding and abetting. According to the complaint, Vincent Ramos, Phantom’s owner, told undercover investigators “We made it—we made it specifically for this [drug trafficking] too,” referring to his company’s phones.

Caption: A selection of posts on Phantom PGP's Instagram account. Image: Instagram

Phantom PGP did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Two other Instagram accounts online at the time of writing also share Phantom marketing material, but don’t push the high-end lifestyle image quite so explicitly. Another Instagram, this time advertising a custom BlackBerry device from a company called Sky ECC, shows a man holding a bundle of cash in a sports car along with his phone.

Other firms in the secure phone space, including Sky ECC and MPC, have advertised their products on crime news websites (Sky previously said that advert was not their own). A Twitter account tweeted photos of a similar device from EncroChat along with a spread of cash.

Caption: A picture shared from the crime focused Twitter account Misdaadnieuw2. Image: Twitter

To be clear, there may be legitimate customers of some secure phone firms or resellers. But in Phantom’s case, the complaint claims law enforcement agents were not able to identify one.

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Although it’s difficult to determine whether any of the Instagram posts directly led to any sales, Phantom has allegedly been successful at specifically providing its wares to the criminal underground. According to the criminal complaint, written by FBI Special Agent Nicholas Cheviron, the “upper echelon members” of transnational criminal groups have bought Phantom phones, and a source familiar with the industry previously told Motherboard the devices have been sold in Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela, as well as the Hells Angels biker gang.

“Don’t take it personally, it’s just business,” another of Phantom PGP’s posts reads.

Update: After the publication of this piece, the Phantom PGP Instagram account closed down.

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