How EncroChat became the go-to messaging service for gangsters

James Cook
An EncroChat smartphone - YouTube

The hundreds of criminals arrested following the penetration of encrypted messaging platform EncroChat has revealed the popularity of a service which spent years competing for customers.

Designed to provide  "worry-free secure communications" through modified Android phones, EncroChat enabled users to send written messages or make voice calls through an encrypted system. 

There were thought to be 60,000 users internationally, including 10,000 in the UK, with prices starting at £3,000 a year for a subscription. 

EncroChat claimed for years that its service was secure. It even physically removed the camera, microphone and GPS transmitter inside its smartphones to block any attempts to hack into them.

Another feature which is likely to have appealed to criminals is its “dual-boot” system. Turning on the smartphone normally showed a standard Android operating system. Accessing the encrypted portion of the phone required a specific set of keys to be pressed.

Any criminals who believed the police were hot on their heels could enter a specific passcode to trigger a “panic wipe” function which completely wiped their device, removing evidence of their messages and underworld contacts.

The platform was designed to be secure against unwanted outside access. In the UK, it became the messaging service of choice for gangsters. 

“The sole use was for coordinating and planning the distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering and plotting to kill rival criminals,” the National Crime Agency (NCA )wrote.

Owning an encrypted smartphone is not in itself illegal. British law firm JMW Solicitors is representing Britons who used the devices and says the seizures of hundreds of millions of EncroChat messages may have been illegal.

EncroChat built up its network of tens of thousands of customers through relentless online advertising. 

The customised smartphones were openly advertised on Vlinderscrime, a Dutch crime blog run by Martin Kok, a convicted murderer who was shot dead leaving an Amsterdam sex club in 2016.

The smartphones were often sold through in-person transactions and bought with cash, although many of the devices were available for sale online with prices starting at £900. Many sellers of the device accepted Bitcoin payments.

The service is likely to have picked up thousands of customers in 2016 following the shutdown of rival Ennetcom by Dutch police. Unlike EncroChat, Ennetcom used modified Blackberry phones for its supposedly secure messaging system.

It was impossible for anyone not using an EncroChat phone to communicate through its encrypted messaging service with anyone who did use the platform, meaning anyone wishing to transact with EncroChat users had to also pay for the service.

Online advertising led to the service used by thousands of criminal figures. EncroChat phones were used by Mark Fellows and Steven Boyle, who were found guilty of murder for the killing of underworld fixer John Kinsella, for example.

The lucrative market for the devices led to public attempts to ruin rival phone maker’s reputations among members of the underworld. 

An anonymously filmed video released in 2018 claimed it was possible to obtain information from EncroChat phones. EncroChat responded by releasing its own video attacking a rival encrypted phone system run by Samsung.

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