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Scammers Use Burlington Addresses on Phony Weed Websites. Customers Come Knocking.

By

LUKE EASTMAN
  • Luke Eastman

Over time, baristas learn to decode the signs of a customer in need — the searching squint for the Wi-Fi password, the meandering quest for the sugar station. At Onyx Tonics, the specialty coffee shop in downtown Burlington, staff have also learned to spot what owner Jason Gonzalez dubs "the Mega Marijuana look."

Mega Marijuana Store does not exist, but the Mega Marijuana Store look is very real. It's a look of confusion, frustration and disappointment. It's the look of embarrassment after realizing you've just been duped.

Ever since Onyx Tonics opened in 2016, Gonzalez recently told me, people have shown up looking for weed. They are sent there by websites that purport to take cannabis orders online and that have claimed Burlington-area addresses in web directories to seem more legit. It happens once or twice a week, Gonzalez said — enough that he's joked about changing his shop's name to "Chronyx Tonics."

I was skeptical at first. Who could possibly fall for it?

"I would just think you'd have to be pretty fucking stupid," Vermont Cannabis Solutions attorney Tim Fair said when I later showed him one of the websites. "It's kind of like answering a Nigerian prince email, in my opinion."

Onyx Tonics is one of many tenants at 126 College Street, a four-story office building with street-level retail and a bar. In the suite next door, Debbie Safran has also learned to identify the "look." Not long after Safran opened Houndstooth pet boutique in late 2019, an older woman wandered inside and started fidgeting with the racks of dog collars and chew toys. The woman eventually confessed that she wasn't interested in pet products at all. "I'm looking for the dispensary," she told the shopkeeper.

These encounters with cannabis-seeking clientele initially struck Safran as merely a little odd. But the misguided visitors kept coming, and Safran soon learned, like the other tenants at 126 College Street, that the location has been randomly caught up in an online weed scam.

The web is rife with fake e-tailers that entice customers to fork over their money with the promise of good kush shipped to their doorstep. There is, however, no pot — only customers left with harshed vibes and lighter wallets. 

Even if the deals were real, such online businesses would be illegal in the United States. In Vermont, only medical marijuana patients can legally buy weed, at least until retail, adult-use shops open next year.

The grifters have succeeded by creating convincing websites that feature interactive product menus and customer service chat boxes. As a sort of finishing touch, the sites often list a business phone number and a physical address.

For years, the brick commercial building at 126 College Street, near the Church Street Marketplace, has been listed as the business address for various iterations of weed delivery scams. The address appears not just on the websites themselves but also on various online directories. When I googled "Buy weed Burlington Vermont," the second result was a Yelp directory that features a mix of real medical dispensaries and phony businesses, including one of the latter at the College Street location.

Safran estimated that two dozen weed seekers have stopped by since she opened her store. Many strike her as confused out-of-state visitors looking to get high during their trip to the Green Mountain State. But online reviews suggest that some visitors are also scam victims looking for answers.

"Out $160," a customer named Sabrina wrote in an online review of Mega Marijuana Store last October. "Wish I could do more to hurt them. Doubt they are in VT, I plan to stop by and check as I'm from New England and visit often."

In their assumed roles as bearers of bad news, the College Street shopkeepers have learned to be direct.

"We're pretty blunt," Gonzalez said. "We just say it's a scam; it doesn't exist here."

Some disappointed customers plead that they drove several hours to find the store. Some ask, hopefully, if the good stuff is in the back. Others only become more suspicious.

"They get really paranoid on me, like I'm lying to them," said Safran, who noted that she's never even "done pot."

126 College Street - MATTHEW ROY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Matthew Roy ©️ Seven Days
  • 126 College Street

The College Street address is one of at least five local ones to have appeared on the phony sites in recent years, I discovered. Mega Marijuana Store, which, according to customers' frustrated reviews, coaxed them to pay using nonrefundable methods such as Bitcoin or Walmart gift cards, had its web domain suspended sometime in the last year. It also has been the subject of a fraud alert issued by the Better Business Bureau.

But a new site, weadic.com, is now also using the College Street address.

Asserting a Vermont location is one way that the sites' creators can add a sheen of legitimacy for ill-informed consumers. Similar scams have used addresses in weed-friendly Colorado, the alt-weekly newspaper Westword reported in 2017. 

"If I'm trying to think like a scammer, I would pick a state that has some association with cannabis in a positive way," said Dave Silberman, a Middlebury attorney who has pushed for legal, regulated weed in the Green Mountains. "Vermont certainly has that association."

Silberman emphasized that even when retail licenses for recreational pot stores are issued next year in Vermont, online sales will still be illegal. Some medical dispensaries do offer online preorders, but payment still takes place face-to-face.

Weadic.com hardly plays up its supposed Vermont connection. The site's "About" page lists headquarters in Seattle, Wash., plus offices in five other cities — but none in Vermont. Its phone number was not in service as of last week, and no one from Weadic responded to my email asking whether I could pick up an order at the College Street address.

I had a little more luck reaching somebody with a site called Mega Bud Dispensary. 

The home page for megabuddispensary.com advises that "due to covid-19, we deliver at your address." Just below that 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. 

So instead I opened the site's convenient live chat feature and quickly got the attention of a representative 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. 

First I asked Steve to explain how Mega Bud's delivery service worked. In response, he asked for my location. When I told him Vermont, he replied curtly: "Put in your order."

Steve went on to explain that I could not pick up my order at Mega Bud's physical store because I didn't have a medical marijuana card. Delivery was my only option. 

I pressed Steve to tell me more about Mega Bud's location, explaining that I was unsure about his company because I'd read some complaints on the Better Business Bureau site. Steve assured me that those customers were actually complaining about the defunct Mega Marijuana Store — "which isn't us but a similar business" — and had posted their complaints about the wrong business.

Eventually, Steve gave me an actual street address: 28 Hinesburg Road. The Shelburne street was Mega Bud's original location, he explained, but it had since moved. 

I searched the South Burlington address on Google Maps. Up popped a grainy photo of a woman walking into a shop with the word "DISPENSARY" emblazoned on a sign above. The photo had been uploaded in September 2019 by a user named "dgre rtgr."

Something about it didn't look right. So, I took a drive ... and ended up in a parking lot for a liquor store at 26 Hinesburg Road. The street number Steve had given me — 28 — doesn't exist. After I popped back into our virtual chat room to tell him this, Steve stopped responding.

Debunking Weadic isn't quite as straightforward. Its address is real, and the offices above Onyx and Houndstooth include numerous unmarked suites. "Is it possible," as Fair's partner Andrew Subin initially speculated, that the website is merely "a menu for some other way to order?" Could the stash of Alien OG, said on Weadic's site to be able to tend to my problems "in a very effective way," be stored discreetly behind one of those unmarked doors, waiting to be purchased the old-fashioned way? 

Ann Heath of Investors Corporation of Vermont, which owns 126 College Street, said she once encountered someone who did go door-to-door through the building's narrow halls in search of a "dispensary." She assured me, however, that none of the tenants inside 126 College Street sells marijuana.

If I'd spent hundreds of dollars on flower that never arrived, though, I might go knocking, too.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Side Street Effect"