Scammers use Burlington addresses on fake cannabis websites. Customers come knocking. | Business | Seven days
Over time, baristas learn to decode the signs of a customer in need – the squint for the Wi-Fi password, the winding quest for the sugar station. TO Onyx tonics, downtown Burlington’s specialty cafe, staff have also learned to spot what owner Jason Gonzalez calls “the Mega Marijuana look.”
The Mega Marijuana Store does not exist, but the Mega Marijuana Store see is very real. It’s a look of confusion, frustration and disappointment. It’s the embarrassed look after realizing you’ve just been duped.
Since opening Onyx Tonics in 2016, Gonzalez recently told me that people have turned up looking for weed. They are sent there by websites that claim to take cannabis orders online and claim that Burlington area addresses in web directories look more legitimate. It happens once or twice a week, Gonzalez said – enough to joke about his shop’s name change to “Chronyx Tonics”.
I was skeptical at first. Who could fall into the trap?
“I would just think you should be pretty stupid,” Vermont Cannabis Solutions attorney Tim Fair said when I later showed him one of the websites. “It’s a bit like responding to an email from a Nigerian prince, in my opinion.”
Onyx Tonics is one of several tenants at 126 College Street, a four-story office building with street-level retail and a bar. In the sequel next door, Debbie Safran also learned to identify the “gaze”. Shortly after Safran opened a Houndstooth pet store in late 2019, an older woman walked inside and started fiddling with dog collars and chew toy racks. The woman eventually confessed that she was not at all interested in pet products. “I’m looking for the dispensary,” she said to the shopkeeper.
These meetings with customers in search of cannabis initially seemed a little strange to Safran. But misguided visitors continued to arrive, and Safran soon learned, like other 126 College Street tenants, that the location had been randomly picked up in an online weed scam.
The web is full of bogus online retailers tricking customers into spending their money with the promise of good kush shipped to their doorstep. There is no pot, however – only clients left with harsh vibes and lighter wallets.
Even if the transactions were real, such online businesses would be illegal in the United States. In Vermont, only medical marijuana patients can legally purchase weed, at least until adult retail stores open next year.
The crooks have been successful in creating compelling websites that feature interactive product menus and customer service chat boxes. As a finishing touch, sites often list a business phone number and a physical address.
For years, the brick-built commercial building at 126 College Street near the Church Street Market has been listed as a business address for various iterations of weed delivery scams. The address appears not only on the websites themselves, but also on various online directories. When I Google “Buy Weed Burlington Vermont,” the second result was a Yelp directory that features a mix of real medical dispensaries and fake businesses, including one of the latter at the College location. Street.
Safran estimated that two dozen weed researchers have stopped since it opened its store. Many hit her like confused out-of-state visitors looking to get high on their trip to Green Mountain State. But online reviews suggest that some visitors are also victims of an answer scam.
“Out $ 160,” wrote a customer named Sabrina in an online review of Mega Marijuana Store last October. “I wish I could do more to hurt them. I doubt they’re in Vermont, plan to stop and check in as I’m from New England and visit often.”
In their supposed roles as bearers of bad news, College Street traders have learned to be blunt.
“We’re pretty straightforward,” Gonzalez said. “They just say it’s a scam, it doesn’t exist here.”
Some disappointed customers claim to have driven several hours to find the store. Some are hopefully asking if the good things are in the back. Others only become more suspicious.
“They get really paranoid with me, like I’m lying to them,” said Safran, who noted that she had never even “done pot”.
The College Street address is one of at least five local addresses that have appeared on bogus sites in recent years, I found. Mega Marijuana Store, which frustrated customer reviews have caused them to pay using non-refundable methods such as Bitcoin or Walmart gift cards, has seen its web domain suspended over the past year. It was also the subject of a fraud alert issued by the Better Business Bureau.
But a new site, weadic.com, now also uses the College Street address.
Affirming a location in Vermont is a way for site creators to add a splash of legitimacy to uninformed consumers. Similar scams have used addresses in Colorado, the weed-friendly alt-weekly newspaper. Westword declared in 2017.
“If I try to think like a con artist, I would choose a state that has some association with cannabis in a positive way,” said Dave Silberman, a lawyer from Middlebury who has advocated for legal and regulated weed in the Green Mountains. . “Vermont certainly has that association.”
Silberman pointed out that even when the retail licenses for recreational pot stores are issued next year in Vermont, online sales will still be illegal. Some medical dispensaries offer pre-orders online, but payment is always made in person.
Weadic.com barely plays its supposed connection with Vermont. The site’s “About” page lists the headquarters in Seattle, Washington, as well as offices in five other cities, but none in Vermont. Her phone number was down last week, and no one from Weadic answered my email asking if I could pick up an order from the College Street address.
I was a little bit more fortunate to reach someone with a site called Mega Bud Dispensary.
The home page of megabuddispensary.com states that “due to covid-19, we deliver to your address”. Directly below this banner, the site lists a New Jersey phone number and a physical location of “Pine Haven Shores, Shelburne, VT 05482, USA”.
My phone call to the Jersey number went to voicemail, where a stilted voice told me in a feminine British accent that no one from Mega Bud was available.
Instead, I opened up the site’s handy live chat feature and quickly caught the attention of a rep named “Steve Daniels”. A photo of “Steve” appeared next to his name, but his facial features were partially obscured by an impressive puff of smoke.
I first asked Steve to explain how the Mega Bud delivery service works. In response, he asked me for my location. When I told him Vermont, he said curtly, “Place your order.
Steve went on to explain that I couldn’t pick up my order from the physical Mega Bud store because I didn’t have a medical marijuana card. Delivery was my only option.
I urged Steve to tell me more about the location of Mega Bud, explaining that I was not sure about his business because I had read complaints on the Better Business Bureau site. Steve assured me that these customers were in fact complaining about the defunct Mega Marijuana Store – “which is not us but a similar company” – and posted their complaints about the wrong company.
Finally, Steve gave me a real address: 28 Hinesburg Road. Shelburne Street was the original location of Mega Bud, he explained, but it has since moved.
I searched for the South Burlington address on Google Maps. A grainy photo of a woman entering a store appeared with the word “DISPENSARY” engraved on a sign above it. The photo was uploaded in September 2019 by a user named “dgre rtgr”.
Something was wrong. So I drove around … and found myself in the parking lot of a liquor store at 26 Hinesburg Road. The house number Steve gave me – 28 – doesn’t exist. After I returned to our virtual chat room to tell him this, Steve stopped responding.
Demystifying Weadic is not quite that simple. His address is real, and the offices above Onyx and Houndstooth include many unmarked suites. “Is it possible,” as Fair’s partner Andrew Subin initially speculated, that the website is simply “a menu for another way to order? “Could the Alien OG hiding place, declared on the Weadic site to be able to solve my problems” in a very effective way “, be stored discreetly behind one of these unmarked doors, while waiting to be purchased at the Ancient ?
Ann Heath of Investors Corporation of Vermont, owner of 126 College Street, said she once met someone who had been door-to-door through the building’s narrow hallways looking for a “dispensary”. However, she assured me that none of the tenants at 126 College Street were selling marijuana.
If I had spent hundreds of dollars on flowers that never arrived, I might also have knocked on the door.