Part of the PublicSource series
Stories about the opioid epidemic
in the Pittsburgh region.
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Pure fentanyl is making its way into neighborhoods throughout the United States through the postal service.
"If I have mailboxes in my neighborhood, I have drug dealing,” said Eric Yingling, an FBI special agent based in Pittsburgh.
Federal law enforcement agents say that residents can get packages of fentanyl and other illicit drugs delivered right to their doorsteps, much like a product you would order from Amazon. This kind of drug delivery has been happening since the early 2000s. But now, amid a worsening national opioid crisis, federal crime-fighting units are trying new ways to crack down.
Pittsburgh is an epicenter for this work because of the city’s rich cybersecurity expertise and that in December 2015 it became home to one of two FBI opioid task forces in the country. The other is in Sacramento, Calif. Pittsburgh’s opioid task force tackles the epidemic from multiple fronts: medical fraud and doctor-prescribed opioid medication, street dealers and drug trafficking on shadowy corners of the internet — frequently referred to as the darknet.
The darknet links drug dealers and users across countries and continents, and it has also brought together agents Yingling and Shawn Brokos.
Yingling, who specializes in darknet investigations, and Brokos, head of Pittsburgh’s opioid task force, are partnering to take down drug dealers who sell fentanyl and other opioids via the darknet.
Fentanyl surpassed heroin as the most common drug type detected in fatal overdose victims in Allegheny County between 2015 and 2017. Yingling said he believes fentanyl overdoses in our city and region are a direct result of the darknet — either from dealers acquiring their product online then selling it on the street or area residents simply ordering drugs from the comfort of their homes.
What is the darknet?
The darknet (sometimes called the dark web) has been around since the 1970s. It has always allowed some level of anonymous sharing between computer users with taboo or criminal interests. Child exploitation and pornography were main drivers to the darknet for some time. In the 1990s, these crimes against children made up about 85 percent of the darknet, Yingling said.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s when software for illicit dealing emerged.
Within the darknet are sites called markets that look very much like Amazon or Ebay. They are easy to sign up for and easy to navigate. Once someone creates a username and passcode, they may search these marketplaces for guns, drugs, hitmen, child pornography, etc. Users and vendors make sales and purchases with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. According to Yingling, the markets on the darknet look a lot like the “clearnet” pages most people are used to. But instead of clothing departments by gender in the drop-down menu, for example, there are drug classifications. Under psychedelics, a menu could provide choices, like mushrooms, LSD or DMT, a hallucinogenic. These marketplaces have administrators and staff. There are moderators, tech people and PR departments. Market employees live all over the world and likely never meet in real life.
‘Safe’ drug trade
Teenagers, suburbanites, anyone with access to a computer can easily access the darknet. According to Yingling, the darknet is especially appealing to new drug users: they don’t have to meet new or dangerous people this way or carry a weapon and drive to a different part of town to purchase the drugs. It seems safer.
It can create a false sense of security. The drugs are just as lethal, if not more so.
“Overdose deaths don’t perform like the predicted model. They happen outside the supply chain,” Yingling said.
According to Brokos, a kilo of pure fentanyl costs about $3,500 on the darknet. It can be pressed into about a million pills that a dealer can sell for $10 each. That amounts to a $10 million return on investment, less the purchase fee.
"If I have mailboxes in my neighborhood, I have drug dealing.”
Theoretically, a darknet user could buy directly from a cartel or from someone in the South Side. On the darknet, vendors with higher ratings pop up first. Vendors compete, boasting better product, price and faster shipping.
This sort of purchasing and shipping doesn’t only harm the potential drug user. Postal workers and people living with drug purchasers could be put in harm’s way. Yingling pointed out that postal workers have been in danger since the dawn of anthrax.
Together, the United States Postal Service, Homeland Security, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency [DEA] screen packages for return addresses that are known to be drug sources.
Brokos said four grains of pure fentanyl can cause a fatal overdose if ingested and coming into contact with it can cause an overdose in a non-user, but it likely would not be fatal.
There has been some dispute over the potency of pure fentanyl in recent months, however. Toxicology experts contend that one cannot overdose from simply touching the substance and this reported risk may cause unnecessary stress on first responders and law enforcement. Substance abuse experts also worry that misinformation regarding the potency of fentanyl further stigmatizes people who use opioids.
‘A new brand’
Not only does the darknet offer a sense of safety for purchasers, it offers an education.
The new information is yielding “a new brand of dealer,” Yingling said.
The darknet is “teaching” users how to deal. He used a hypothetical example of a 15-year-old in a basement who after making X number of purchases decides to buy large quantities and either sell them locally or become a vendor himself.
“It’s a breeding ground to create more drug dealers,” Yingling said.
Brian Dempsey, a DEA special agent in Pittsburgh, agreed that the darknet could empower a teenager to deal drugs from his basement. He said parents should get involved if their kids start getting packages they don’t know about, especially if they are coming from China, Hong Kong or Canada.
And, Yingling added, parents could also keep an eye out for software called "The Onion Router," or "Tor" for short, which allows for anonymous access to the internet by hiding a person’s IP address. Bitcoin software on a computer is also an indicator that teenagers may be making illicit purchases.
“We have a younger, different generation that is more comfortable using the internet and purchasing online,” Yingling said.
“This makes things very daunting,” Brokos went on. “It’s unwieldy.”
The internet and smartphones have also revolutionized drug dealing, Dempsey said. Users can call and text their dealers at any time. He said text messages and Facebook Messenger are two primary modes of communication. Users generally think Facebook is a safer communication tool with dealers, but it isn’t. The messages aren’t any more secure, and agents can still gain access.
At Norwin Middle School on Feb. 2, Dempsey gave a presentation that included the dangers of fentanyl as a part of the DEA’s drug education program Operation Prevention. He told the dozens of middle schoolers that fentanyl is addictive and potent. He said he gets calls two or three times a week from parents who have lost a child to opioid overdose. One of the first things he does when talking with parents who have lost a child in this way is to check their child’s phone.
“A lot of times those parents want justice so bad for their children, they’ll go to the morgue, they’ll go to the funeral home, they’ll take their dead child’s thumb and place it on his phone and open it up,” he said to the students.
Dempsey told the students that he will gather as much evidence as he can from text messages and Facebook to convict a drug dealer and bring a family justice.
Dempsey asked the middle schoolers, “How many people have known someone who overdosed?” About half the room raised their hands.
In an interview, Dempsey called the Northeast region of the country a “hot spot” for fentanyl. The darknet is playing a role in this, he said.
“People are also using the internet to order prescription pills as well as fentanyl products,” Dempsey said. “I mean, I'm seeing Percocets, Oxycodone tablets, hydrocodone products. Whether or not they are fake, I can’t answer that.”
Like with any illicit drug, there is no control on if it is fake or corrupted in some other way. Dempsey cited a June 2017 case in Georgia, where dozens of people overdosed from counterfeit Percocet tablets. He said the pills were purchased off the Dream Market on the darknet. Later, when the DEA examined the Percocet tablets, they found they were laced with Carfentanil.
‘This notion of darkness’
What makes it even harder for agents is that not all transactions happen in the darknet marketplace: users direct message each other and take down the original product listing. That is because these “markets” take a cut of their sales.
Nicolas Christin is an associate research professor in the School of Computer Science and in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Christin is a longtime darknet watcher and expert. He tracks transactions on the darknet and has published analyses of his findings.
He had predicted a spike in opioid sales: fentanyl, carfentanil, “all of those synthetic opioids.” But his prediction didn’t prove out.
“To my surprise, we didn't see that much of a spike compared to marijuana and coke, which remained the main products,” Christin said.
Three-quarters of the drug trade on the darknet is marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy and that hasn’t changed, he said.
It is possible, Christin continued, that some synthetic opioids were classified as prescription drugs on the market, and there has been a moderate increase in prescription drug sales. The majority of those sales are the stimulants Ritalin or Adderall, though.
Christin disagrees with the federal agents who say the darknet has contributed to the growing number of overdoses involving fentanyl.
“This notion of darkness is actually very interesting because it’s anything but. We can see everything.”
Setting up a Bitcoin account and using the darknet is complicated. Christin doesn't think this is the preferred method for opioid users. Why go through all that trouble when you can find postings on Craigslist or Facebook and just message a drug dealer in your backyard? Christin said he isn’t a darknet apologist, but drugs will be purchased and consumed, so at least information can be collected from darknet transactions.
Christin put it like this: If someone were to try and find out how many drug transactions happened in Pittsburgh today, they would have to arrest street dealers and make up projections based on evidence found after those arrests. It would be a lot of guesswork. If Christin wanted to find out how many drug transactions happened on a darknet marketplace, all he would have to do is “count the feedback and multiply by the prices and you know exactly what’s happening.”
“So it's actually fairly transparent in that respect,” he said.
Sure, it doesn’t tell you everything; dealing often happens behind the scenes after the connection is made on the marketplace. But the alternative, he said, is much murkier.
“This notion of darkness is actually very interesting because it's anything but. We can see everything,” he said.
Brittany Hailer is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Madeleine Davison.
Edited by Halle Stockton and Mila Sanina.
Web design and development by Natasha Khan.
This project has been made possible with the generous support of the Staunton Farm Foundation.
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