With two vintage Ferraris on the gravel drive of his five-bedroomed mansion in Denham, a second home in Dubai, and a yacht moored nearby which he had just sold for a million pounds, Lee Hannigan had all the markings of a successful life. He was in his mid-forties, masquerading as a legitimate businessman, but his secret EncroChat phone told a different story. He was a money launderer for drug gangs, hiding in plain sight and protected, so he believed, by the unbreakable encryption on his phone.
He was not alone. There was his near neighbour Harry Hicks-Samuels, still in his twenties, whose friends and associates thought was a respectable watch dealer. In fact, he was a major cocaine importer and a key player in an organised crime group. Lee Hannigan laundered the money that Hicks-Samuels earned – £100,000s of it. Harry had an EncroChat phone too – he and Lee exchanged messages and photos, sometimes about business and sometimes just chitchat. “People just think I’m a watch dealer”, Harry crowed in one message.
Across the UK thousands of other high-level criminals were also openly chatting on their EncroChat phones too – discussing the shipment of class-A drugs, or hiring hitmen among casual chatter about joining golf clubs, ordering meals at luxury restaurants and taking their fast cars out for a spin. All of them thought they were safe from the prying eyes of law enforcement, but they were wrong. The police were listening in, during a sting lasting many weeks – the group’s chitchatting a valuable trail of breadcrumbs that would lead to their prize capture.