25 Investigates: Social media apps becoming ‘superhighway for drugs’

Mass. — Federal law enforcement is sounding the alarm about the sale of counterfeit pills on social media apps.

As 25 investigates first reported in November, cartels and dealers are making pills that look just like popular prescription drugs only theirs are laced with deadly amounts of fentanyl.

And investigators say selling those pills is easier than ever before.

The Story of Loss

“Zach was doing incredibly well. 17, high school senior, always had top grades loved athletics,” said mom Laura Didedier.

Her son, Zach Didedier was college-bound, and excited for his future. But she says during Christmas break 2020, he became bored and anxious. The California teen and a friend bought some pain pills they found through a dealer on Snapchat. The dealer claimed to be selling Percocet and Zach took one.

“He was at the computer. It was like he laid his head down and never woke up,” Didedier said. She says Zach’s dad found him. It was two days after Christmas.

Expert: ‘What we are seeing is the wild, wild west out there’

Fake pressed pills are being sold across the country. In November Boston 25 anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh got exclusive access to an undisclosed Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse in New England where evidence of deadly fake pills and pill presses are decontaminated and destroyed.

The DEA showed Kavanaugh how dealers are stamping drugs to look like prescription pain killers and anti-anxiety meds. And experts say they’re easily finding customers.

“They’re targeting kids and going after all anybody that they can,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge of the New England Field Division, Brian Boyle. And Boyle says they find them on social media.

“They’ve been tracking you. If they know you’re going to a concert, they might say, send something back to you or get in your comment section of those apps and they’ll say, ‘meet me there if you need something, I have it for you,’” Boyle said.

“You’re losing the need to see someone and meet someone in a dark alley,” said Georgia State University professor David Maimon.

Maimon researches cybercrime and says online drug sales have moved from the dark web to social media platforms. With Snapchat, the messages disappear after a certain amount of time. Sites like Telegram offer end to end encryption, blocking third parties from viewing what’s said and sold.

“What we are seeing is the wild, wild west out there. There’s not enough regulation on those platforms,” Maimon said. “Law enforcement is having a hard time monitoring what’s going on these platforms.”

That issue was at the center of February 1st congressional hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on health.

“Social media has become a superhighway for drugs,” said Associate Administrator of the DEA Jon C. Delena.

Delena says they can’t go after the dealers using these apps unless the apps are willing to work with them.

“What is your interaction with social media sites on this? Do you get cooperation,” asked Rep. Kim Schreir (D) WA.

“They know how content is being pushed to all of their hundreds of millions of users. They control all of the data,” Delena said. “There needs to be more transparency. If they want to fix this problem, they can fix this problem.”

Zach’s parents have made it their mission to educate other parents and young people not to take any pill unless it’s prescribed by a doctor. Just one pill can have devastating consequences.

“If his story can put a face to this crisis, we know he would want us to do that,” Laura Didedier said.

25 Investigates reached out to Snapchat to ask about their work with law enforcement. They said over the last two years they have made significant improvements to efforts to remove drug dealers from platforms and support law enforcement investigations.

“We are committed to doing our part to fight the national fentanyl poisoning crisis, which includes using cutting-edge technology to help us proactively find and shut down drug dealers’ accounts. We block search results for drug-related terms, redirecting Snapchatters to resources from experts about the dangers of fentanyl. We continually expand our support for law enforcement investigations, helping them bring dealers to justice, and we work closely with experts to share patterns of dealers’ activities across platforms to more quickly identify and stop illegal behavior. We will continue to do everything we can to tackle this epidemic, including by working with other tech companies, public health agencies, law enforcement, families and nonprofits.”

We also reached out to Telegram. Telegram says their “moderation team uses a combination of proactive monitoring of public spaces and user reports to remove publicly-available content promoting the sale of drugs.”

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