Is Netflix's Bitcoin-Focused Series on Selling Drugs Online Accurate?
Crypto Basics

Is Netflix's Bitcoin-Focused Series on Selling Drugs Online Accurate?

Created 1yr ago, last updated 1yr ago

The hit German-language Netflix series ‘How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast)’ is very accurate about Bitcoin, as far as it goes — which isn’t past the ‘currency of the darknet’ stereotype.

Is Netflix's Bitcoin-Focused Series on Selling Drugs Online Accurate?

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If you go into a TV series called “How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast)” expecting a nuanced portrayal of the societal value of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, you’re going to be disappointed.

However, if you go into it expecting a typical poorly informed, two-dimensional view of how Bitcoin works as a tool of shadowy Internet drug dealers, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised.

Netflix’s breakout German-language hit series is about a high school nerd who builds a multi million-euro online ecstasy marketplace called MyDrugs — largely in order to stop the girl who just dumped him from dating a cooler, better-looking classmate who gets her MDMA. The show’s creators either know nothing about Bitcoin, or never bothered to learn.

Take this line, from season one, episode four: “Converting Bitcoins to cash is complicated and dangerous.”

Which is not usually very true, unless you are looking at it from the perspective of an online drug dealer who wants to launder illegal money without being tracked (not a huge percentage of Bitcoin users nowadays, believe it or not).

The “Bitcoin to cash” line then leads one of the three partners to say: “We’re the most pathetic dealers ever — only virtual money and none of us drives a car.”

Two Out of Three Ain’t Good

Bitcoin does still have a bad reputation — just ask Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who only recently pulled back from comments that cryptocurrencies are used mainly for “illicit financing.”
And yet, barely one-third of one percent — 0.34% — of Bitcoin transactions were linked to criminal transactions in 2020, according to blockchain intelligence firm Chainalysis, which has had some major successes in helping law enforcement track Bitcoin transactions back to their makers. 
Back to Netflix — “‘How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast)” is based loosely on the story of Maximilan Schmidt, an 18-year-old German teen who made millions running the Shiny Flakes online drug market out of his childhood bedroom.

Shiny Flakes accepted payment in Bitcoin, but the fictional MyDrugs marketplace accepts payment in four cryptocurrencies: Bitcoin, Ripple, IOTA and Ethereum. At least, it did in the first season. By season two, the altcoins had disappeared. And a scene in which incipient drug kingpin Moritz’s best friend and partner, Lenny, is working on laundering their crypto shows a balance of zero Ether and Bitcoin Cash, with XRP (aka Ripple) and IOTA nowhere in evidence.

“How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast)” does do a good job of making the crypto savvy of the main characters realistic. Even though they are familiar enough with Bitcoin to know how to use it without leaving a broad trail, the more tech-savvy partner referred to at one point as “Crypto Lenny” is not a very serious cryptohead. While he knows enough to use a tumbler to launder his ill-gotten Bitcoin in small batches, to do it at scale he needs the assistance of his con artist girlfriend, who specializes in infecting mobile phones with ransomware and is therefore a lot more Bitcoin savvy.

So yes, the second Bitcoin bogeyman — ransomware — makes a cameo. Financing terrorism, happily, is not in evidence.

Give Us Clean Laundry

After that “complicated but dangerous” comment, Moritz — who cuts between being a player in the action and the narrator talking directly to the audience — starts explaining that while safely offramping illegal Bitcoin to euros is difficult, it is not impossible.

“Everyone sees Bitcoin as the anonymous online currency,” narrator Moritz says. “But it is not really that anonymous. Every transaction is saved somewhere and can theoretically be found. Cash is much more anonymous. Can you name the last three owners of the 10 euro bill in your wallet? 

The problem, he adds, is that: “If you want to convert Bitcoins to cash, you have to give up your identity. Unless you know how it works. But that changes all the time.”

In 2013, he says, you’d go on and “arrange to meet with strangers to anonymously trade your Bitcoin for cash.”

The visual, as he explains it, is a 40s film-noir drug deal in which fedora-wearing thugs trade a briefcase full of euros for a mobile phone’s Bitcoin wallet.

In 2015, “there was this weird time when with simple fake IDs you could register with shady online banks,” Moritz says. “With a few clicks your money was in your account. The problem? You could only withdraw up to a certain amount of cash.”

In 2020, he narrates, “it’s best to go to Holland or Austria. Here there are Bitcoin ATMs where you can withdraw cash. You can register with a mobile phone number. So just buy a few prepaid SIM cards, and make withdrawals until the ATM is empty.”

The problem, he says, is that using Bitcoin ATMs “isn’t exactly discreet” — as you as the viewer then visually see two police officers run up demanding ID from criminals using a Bitcoin ATM.

That said, using Bitcoin ATMs for money laundering — as oppose to, say, migrant workers sending remittances to family cheaply and quickly — is enough of a problem that several large Bitcoin ATM operators with stricter Know Your Customer policies formed an anti-money laundering and industry advocacy group, the Cryptocurrency Compliance Cooperative, in August.

“To be 100% safe you need someone with technical superpowers,” Moritz says at the end of the narration. “Someone who knows how to cover one's tracks on the Internet.”

Which proves to be Lenny’s ransomware-hacker girlfriend.

Get Rich or Lie Trying

Even the inaccuracies are on target. One character, a small-town drug barely one rung above street dealers, comments: “You know how 50 Cent got rich? He got in on Vitamin Water, the beverage company. He also invested in Bitcoins.”

Which is not, in fact, true. While rapper Curtis Jackson III did make an eight to nine-figure fortune from the sale of Vitamin Water to Coca-Cola in 2007, it did not make up the majority of his wealth, and he had since declared bankruptcy — well before the time in which the show is set.
As for investing in Bitcoin, 50 Cent did brag about being paid partially in Bitcoin for a 2014 album — a stake that would have grown to about $7.8 million when he tweeted the news. Media reports picked up the story of 50 Cent as a savvy Bitcoin millionaire. But, because of that 2015 bankruptcy filing, Jackson had to backtrack and admit that he’d sold that Bitcoin when he received it. 

So, strictly speaking, while the dialogue is inaccurate, it’s repeating the exact “fake news” facts that a small-time, not particularly crypto-savvy drug dealer would remember. 

TLDR; watch this show for entertainment value, read CoinMarketCap Alexandria to learn real things about crypto (but not how to sell drugs online, obviously).

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