Eventbrite Promoted Illegal Opioid Sales to People Searching for Addiction Recovery Help

“Listings like these do not have a home on Eventbrite,” Chris Adams, the company’s head of platform product, tells WIRED in a statement. “This is a spam attack, coordinated by a few bad actors attempting to draw audiences to third-party sites.” Adams says Eventbrite is taking the issue “very seriously” and the “identified illegal and illicit activity has been removed.”

Eventbrite’s help center says it uses a “combination of tools and processes” to detect content that goes against its rules. These include, its pages say, using machine learning to proactively detect content, a “rules-based” system, responding to reports from users, and human reviews.

“Our investigation determined this is abnormal activity, a misuse of the Eventbrite platform, and based on our findings, Eventbrite did not profit from these listings, and there have been no finalized ticket purchases identified,” Adams says.

Eventbrite appears to have removed most, if not all, of the illicit listings that WIRED identified after we alerted the company to the issue. Because of the way WIRED collected the data, however, the thousands of listings found on Eventbrite are likely the tip of the iceberg. WIRED obtained the data used for its analysis by collecting listings Eventbrite deemed were “related” to hundreds of events found through simple keyword searches. These keyword searches and their related events likely do not capture the entirety of illicit events published on the platform.

Even within this limited dataset, our analysis found that, on average, 169 illicit events have been published daily.

The vast majority of the listings WIRED found used common tactics, whether they pushed drugs, escort services, or online account details. The spammy pages were often listed as online “events.” The events do not actually happen but rather act as a way for those posting them to publish their activities online. Most of them were free; however, some tried to charge people to “attend” through Eventbrite. It is not clear whether anyone has paid for any of the events.

Searching for various controlled substances, such as brand-name opioids, brought up results on Eventbrite. These “events” mostly pushed people away from the platform to online pharmacy websites, which say people can buy medicines without prescriptions.

John Hertig, an associate professor at Butler University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, says there are thousands of online pharmacies operating at any time and that the vast majority of them are illegal—with websites often selling drugs not approved by the FDA or failing to be licensed in the country where they are selling into.

“The other major issue that we see in terms of illegality is not requiring a prescription,” Hertig says. “You see a lot of this: ‘easy, hassle free, simple process, no doctor needed.’ That’s illegal.” Typically accounts claiming to sell medicines through non-official platforms, such as those on Eventbrite, will not be doing so legitimately, Hertig says, and that brings risks around whether what they are selling is safe.

As well as websites, those claiming to sell illicit services on Eventbrite pushed people to chat privately on WhatsApp or Telegram. Our analysis identified as many as 60 unique Telegram accounts and 65 WhatsApp numbers in the dataset. WhatsApp spokesperson Joshua Breckman says the platform encourages users to report suspicious activity and that it will respond to valid law enforcement requests. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.