ENCROCHAT: Drug importers were under NCA surveillance months before encryted phones hack
TWO drug smugglers charged under the National Crime Agency's (NCA) Opration Venetic investigation into the use of 'secure' messaging system Encrochat had been under investigation months before the encrypted phones were hacked.
Arron James Collins, 35, (top right) and Bertram Jack Fallon, 31, (top left) both from Bristol were jailed at Bristol Crown Court on Tuesday after admitting to conspiracy to import cocaine.
The court heard Collins rented in his own name a property through Airbnb on Chessel Street in Bristol, between 14 and 18 January 2020, to wait for a delivery of five kilos of cocaine from Amsterdam concealed in whey protein powder packages.
But, unbeknown to him, Border Force officers had seized it at London Gateway Parcel Hub, in Stanford-le-Hope, Essex.
They alerted the NCA, which carried out surveillance on the property.
Fallon was observed by NCA officers driving past the Airbnb address on the day it was due to be delivered.
He was arrested on January 23 2020 at his home on Bramley Close in Olveston.
SURVEILLANCE: The NCA was monitoring the pair long before the Encrochat hack (NCA)
Collins was later arrested at his home on Newland Walk, Bristol, on February 14 2020, where officers found mini scales with traces of cocaine and ketamine.
Both had been using the encrypted messaging systems Encrochat and Wickr.
Fallon refused to disclose pins to his mobile phones.
In April French and Dutch investigators broke through the encryption of the supposedly secure Encrochat encrypted phone communication platform which was being used by around 50,000 people worldwide, including about 9,000 in the UK.
They allowed police forces across Europe, including in the UK, access to previously sent and new real time messaging between suspected organised crime groups.
Police across the country, led by the NCA have arrested more than 1,000 people under Operation Venetic, and several hundred have been charged and remanded in custody to await trial.
However, Encrochat devices were only found in a small number of cases.
Encrochat shut down in June after it realised the hack.
An NCA spokesman said: "Messages analysed in June 2020 as part of Operation Venetic – the UK investigation into the encrypted messaging platform EncroChat – provided further evidence of (Fallon and Collins') drug-dealing operation.
BUSTED: Collins rented an Airbnb in his own name to wait for the drugs (NCA)
"Collins admitted on EncroChat that booking the property in his name and emailing the agent was a 'stupid mistake' to make because it linked him to the drugs.
"In one message, he said: 'It only takes one mistake to get caught.'"
However, the pair had not communicated directly with one another using the EncroChat platform, instead opting to talk through encrypted messaging service Wickr.
Collins was jailed for nine years and five months for conspiracy to import cocaine, while Fallon received six years and six months for the same conspiracy and for failing to disclose the Pins for his mobile phones.
NCA Operations Manager Anthony Hubbard said: “These men thought they could use encrypted messaging platforms to act with impunity, but criminals who use this method to arrange drug shipments are not untouchable.
“Our priority will always be to protect the public, and we will continue to pursue criminals involved in the drugs trade, which fuels violence and exploitation throughout the UK.”
SEIZED: The drugs had been hidden in whey protein packages (NCA)
The NCA are now seeking a confiscation order against Collins, who has a portfolio of houses valued in excess of £1million.
Immigration Compliance Minister Chris Philp said:
“This was tremendous work by Border Force officers, who prevented dangerous Class A drugs from reaching our streets. Working with our partners such as the NCA, we will throw the full force of the law at
organised criminals who use encrypted chat platforms to peddle their dangerous cargo.”
Several Encrochat trials have been delayed by a number of legal challenges by defence lawyers about the admissibility of the live evidence, which is not usually allowed in British Courts.
The first challenge was rejected by a judge, who said the evidence was admissible, but the case is going to the Court of Appeal, delaying many of the prosecutions.
The judgement is due tomorrow (Friday.)
Some prosecutions are based just on Encrochat message evidence even if the defendant was not found in possession of the device in question.
In at least one case the prosecution collapsed after the defence successfully argued the CPS had failed to prove the defendant was the user of the device and another suspect had a charge withdrawn on similar grounds.