Since the sale of recreational marijuana was legalized in Illinois in 2020, residents of Forest Park have had to travel out of town to indulge. But after nearly two years of waiting, one business’ fleeting promise to bring legal weed to the village suddenly vanished into thin air, and in doing so revealed a prolific scam that a bar manager, who was unwittingly dragged into the con, said first popped up a year earlier.
Dankwoods Dispensary, a four-star-rated store whose Google listing included pictures of a brightly lit shop with racks of product and smiling customers, set up operations in Forest Park most recently this November, and it wasn’t long afterward that Matt Sorice started seeing customers walk through his front door.
The problem for Sorice is he didn’t know the first thing about Dankwoods Dispensary, even though the shop’s listed address, 7307 Roosevelt Road, was the same as the bar he manages, Carole’s Next Best Thing.
“At first I didn’t realize it was a scam being run,” Sorice said. “I just thought it was a wrong address, and we all thought it was kind of funny. Then one day a girl came in and she was like, ‘I gave them money in advance.’”
It is unclear how many people gave money to the person or people behind Dankwoods Dispensary, and how many just showed up at Carole’s hoping to shop, but it is evident that Dankwoods Dispensary was never a legitimate business and, to be certain, never had a retail shop in Forest Park. Its website, dankwoods.shop, was still online as of Dec. 7, but its alleged physical locations have been hopping around the country, everywhere from Milwaukee to Washington D.C., presumably as would-be customers catch on to the grift.
A visit to dankwoods.shop shows some clumsy search engine optimization-focused word clusters and less-than-expert graphic design but otherwise offers a wide range of products, a helpful-looking, customer- support chat box, and a churn of popups declaring purchases from customers around the country.
On the bottom of the page, Dankwoods advertises no addresses for their alleged physical locations but claims to be based in Chicago and San Francisco, the latter likely not by accident. A reverse-image search reveals that the brightly lit shop with smiling customers and ample product is, in fact, a picture of the inside of a San Francisco weed shop, Urbana, and there is an apparently upstanding online dispensary that offers delivery service called Dankwoods, operating out of California.
(At the top of the legitimate Dankwoods website, dankwoods.org, is an ominous warning in small gray text that reads “Beware of fake Dankwoods websites claiming to be us!”).
The illegitimate Dankwoods, the one claiming to operate in Forest Park, also claimed to sell its product online. But the means by which sales were completed were the kinds of things that could have, or maybe should have, raised red flags.
According to a police report filed Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, by a Philadelphia-area man who claimed to be a victim of the Dankwoods scam, potential customers were asked to make initial contact with the company via WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned messaging app that’s most popular outside the United States. After conversing with the company on WhatsApp and placing an order, the man said he sent more than $400 via a mobile payment platform and was told to pick up his order at, of course, 7307 Roosevelt Road.
Then he showed up at Carole’s Next Best Thing.
Sorice said customers showed up so frequently looking for Dankwoods — as often as 2-3 times a day — that it became a running joke among his staff and regulars, one that he says became less funny when he had to inform people that he both would not be handing over their purchase and would not be refunding their money.
Sorice called the experience “exasperating,” and it grew even more so when he started trying to get the page removed from Google. Remarkably, Sorice said, the same fraudulent company operating under the same name and using the same phone number ran the same scam about a year ago. He complained to Google enough at that time that the listing came down. When Dankwoods popped up again in November, he started down the same path.
“I reported it to anyone I could think of to do it,” Sorice said. “All Google had to do was take down a listing. Every time someone comes in, I tell them, can you take the time to [flag] this as fraudulent? They did take it down and then the same dispensary at the same location running the same scam pops back up. I don’t know …”
A Google spokesperson said the company “looked into this case and took immediate action to remove policy-violating content and disable the user account associated with the [business].”
“We have clear policies that prohibit fake and fraudulent contributed content, and our automated systems and trained operators work around [the] clock to monitor Google Maps for suspicious behavior. We encourage our users to report misleading places and flag reviews, which helps us improve our automated detection systems and keep the information on Maps authentic and reliable.”
Dankwoods’ now-vanished listing included dozens of glowing reviews dotted with the occasional one-star warning, including one from Sorice, who warned that Dankwoods was not what it appeared to be and reported the company.
Google said it has disabled the user who created the fake Dankwoods account, but a search of the company’s phone number shows three dispensaries, the lazily named Best Dispensary in Washington D.C. and two other Dankwoods in Maryland and New Jersey, all listed on Google Maps, at least as of Dec. 7.
What it feels like is a bizarro game of Whac-a-Mole with the Google behemoth trying to stop a pesky interloper who ducks away just before the hammer truly comes down.
Google said that in 2020 alone, it blocked 55 million fake reviews and took down nearly 3 million fraudulent businesses, all connected to more than 610,000 users, and the fight is something the company said is a constant battle.
And to law enforcement, exactly where that battle should be waged, it’s unclear as well. Detective Lt. Pete Morrissette had the Nov. 25 report land on his desk and immediately suspected the scammers were, at the very least, not from Forest Park. And most likely, he thought, not even from this country. So any criminal case would likely extend far beyond the Forest Park Police Department, but the dollar amounts being scammed — $500 on the high end but likely significantly less in most cases — are probably well below the threshold of what would ignite a investigation by an agency like the FBI.
Still, Morrissette wanted Dankwoods out of Forest Park.
So in early December, he decided he would write his own Google Review. He opened his profile, identified himself as a member of law enforcement, warned that the company was fraudulent and asked those who had been scammed to contact him. Within hours, Morrissette said, Dankwoods Dispensary had disappeared, at least from Google Maps.
“If you’re purchasing online, know who you are purchasing from,” Morrissette said in an interview. “If you’re purchasing from a website, do some outside research before you go ahead and send them your money.”