I'm shocked by what I discover after opening a Snapchat account and posing as a 15-year-old girl.
Drugs appear to be easily accessible—just a few clicks away. I mistakenly believed that this world was obscure and difficult to find, but it is incredibly simple.
To look into how drug gangs use social media to groom children, I went undercover online.
The fictitious account belongs to Mia, a 15-year-old girl.
I haven't searched for drugs or followed any suspicious accounts while setting up Mia's account. .
Only accounts a teenager might follow, such as those of musicians or funny videos, have I done.
When I click on a story on one account that posts videos of people playing around with cars and motorcycles, Telegram appears.
There is a page there that is attempting to sell drugs like cocaine and ketamine.
Even though I created this account by pretending to be a child, I am shocked that this content is so easily accessible.
Snapchat stated that it was against the law to buy or sell drugs on its platform and that it actively monitors content to spot and stop any dealing.
I am aware that these gangs also recruit kids in addition to using social media to sell drugs.
An Eastern European drug gang in south Wales used Anna, who is in her 20s and not her real name, as a pawn and held her captive.
After receiving a friend request on Snapchat from a young man she had just met on a night out, she was drawn into that sinister world.
Anna assured me that "he would be quite romantic, quite flirty, and just shown a massive interest in me.". "We would text nonstop. ".
Anna believed that she was starting a relationship. She observed a man who wasn't much older than she was showing interest in her.
But he had other plans and believed Anna was a helpless young woman who could be taken advantage of. .
She claimed, "The more I was around, the more I helped with the drug dealing.".
It was initially a little frightening, but I eventually realized that I didn't look like your typical drug dealer, making it a little bit easier for me to get away with it. ".
Although Anna thought she was doing a favor for someone who loved her, she soon realized she was being taken advantage of.
She continued, "I thought this was my boyfriend.
"I would then receive messages from other girls or from him contacting other girls.
He was the only person I could turn to, so it was heartbreaking. ".
The gang bribed Anna with drugs and used fear to manipulate and control her, but it cost them.
She recalled how they would be dealing drugs while we were just driving around and blasting music.
"Their boot was loaded with drugs. Simply put your hand in the bag and take whatever you want out, they would say. " .
Almost all parents worry the most about this issue. How secure is your child when using social media and the internet?
Snaptrap: Is your child safe?, a BBC Wales Investigates investigation, airs on July 24 on BBC One Wales and on BBC iPlayer.
Anna mistakenly thought the drugs were being given to her gratis, but this was not the case.
"You now owe us a debt for all these free drugs that you've used," they said in an ultimatum, according to Anna.
You have two options, they told me: either help us deal drugs and get the money back for us, or you can perform sexual favors. ".
Anna believed she was shackled by an impossible debt. .
I decided to pursue sexual favors because I believed they would put me in the least amount of legal trouble, she claimed.
Anna was drawn into the group's orbit by social media. On my fictitious account, I wanted to see if the same thing might occur.
Snapchat began suggesting "quick adds" I might want to friend me soon after I created Mia's account.
As more and more were suggested by Snapchat, I randomly started adding them.
Some of those suggested friends seemed to be drug dealers because they frequently posted images of the drugs they purportedly sold.
What does this say about Snapchat's algorithm, which connects me to potential criminals while believing I am 15?
One of the friends I suggested even seemed to imply that he was a member of a gang moving drugs from London to Swansea.
He began messaging me and said he was looking for a "loyal girl.".
He showed a lot of interest when I told him I was from Wales.
However, gangs are searching for phony accounts like mine.
He requested to see a photo of me, which I can't provide without exposing my identity.
I found that this kept happening throughout my investigation. Is this how gangs verify that kids are as young and defenseless as they claimed?
According to Snapchat, it is unlawful to buy or sell drugs on its platform.
To keep our community safe, "we work in multiple ways to detect and prevent this content, including proactive detection technology and in-app reporting tools," the statement read.
"We have a committed team that works with police investigations and regularly consults with experts to understand gangs' use of drug-related trends, lingo, and behaviors. ".
In order to make it more difficult for its younger users to be contacted by strangers, Snapchat claimed to have "additional protections for them.".
When Tom—not his real name—was forced to pick up the targeted teenagers while working for gangs in Cardiff, he experienced the effects of grooming.
They started out being around 21, 20, and then it dropped to 17 or 16, according to Tom.
"I was constantly afraid for my life. I was unable to see a way out. ".
As part of a system known as County Lines, Tom entered the world of organized crime by assisting gangs from larger cities like London and Birmingham to establish themselves on his home turf of Cardiff in exchange for free drugs.
He drove me to a well-known neighborhood where he once lived in Cardiff, which is not far from the city center.
As we drove around Roath, he showed me where the traphouses—locations where people buy and sell drugs—were, saying, "This area is full of drugs.".
"Gangs from other cities operate and sell drugs from cars, from flats, and from gorgeous five-bedroom houses in the areas surrounding the city center. It's all over. ".
I decide to try out the Telegram app that I was directed to when I first created my Snapchat account because I'm curious about the neighborhood Tom showed me around in, Roath.
People all around me were allegedly selling drugs, according to Telegram's "people nearby" feature. Within 400 meters, there was a vendor offering MDMA, ketamine, meth, and even heroin.
In addition to claiming that it "actively moderates harmful content," Telegram said that its moderators "proactively monitor public groups and channels and accept user reports in order to remove content that violates our terms of service. ".
Dealers make no effort to conceal their accounts. Since they are so simple to locate, I believe kids may stumble upon them by accident.
These County Lines gangs are thought to number over 500 and are active throughout the UK.
The Metropolitan Police claims to have dismantled nearly 1,500 of these drug gangs since 2019 by collaborating with 26 police forces across the UK. The Metropolitan Police has a specialized team dedicated to fighting these drug gangs.
Over 700 people have reportedly been prosecuted and 122 drug lines have been shut down, according to detectives.
Det Ch Insp Dan Mitchel stated, "It's a problem that really affects the entire UK.".
"The defendants are typically 25 years old, and two-thirds of them have prior drug supply convictions, making them frequently ingrained in criminal activity.
"What they typically do is employ children to manage their drug operations, and we frequently observe young people assuming leadership positions as they transport drugs out of London. ".
In recent operations against County Lines gangs in Swansea, Neath, and London, South Wales Police reported that 29 people were detained and "significant quantities" of crack cocaine, heroin, and cash were seized.
Anna eventually got away from the gang after hiding herself online, but she admitted she would "never stop looking over her shoulder.". ".
As a result of being a gang member, Tom feels "sorry, guilty, and ashamed" about his role in destroying children's lives.
"I was just a pawn and I was used from day one," he countered. ".
One day, a knock at the door changed his own personal gang nightmare and led to his imprisonment.
"I just knew that was my way out. When I saw the police, it was just relief."