April 12, 2023
Since March of 2022, fentanyl overdoses have become one of the leading causes of death for adults aged 18 to 45, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).
What’s more, the CDC reports that 107,375 people in the United States died of drug overdoses and drug poisonings in the 12-month period ending in January 2022. A staggering 67 percent of those deaths involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
Far too many families have lost loved ones to opioid overdoses. We must work together across all sectors of society, including government, law enforcement, private businesses, healthcare and education, to stem the flow of illicit fentanyl into our communities.
Tracking the Supply Side of Fentanyl
Prior to 2019, fentanyl was not a controlled substance and people could buy the chemical on websites like eBay or generic marketplaces such as China.com or Trade.com. A person with a company could purchase chemicals and sell them online to someone who had a network of people. The members of the network would then sell fentanyl at the street level throughout the country.
The federal government now regulates illicitly produced fentanyl analogues and related substances as Schedule I drugs, which means they are subject to strict regulations and criminal penalties. But traffickers have found a loophole. They can easily alter the chemical structure of fentanyl, creating fentanyl related substances (FRS) to evade regulation and enhance the drug’s impact.
For instance, xylazine is a non-opiate sedative, analgesic, and muscle relaxant only authorized in the U.S. for veterinary use. However, xylazine is reported as an adulterant in an increasing number of illicit drug mixtures and has been detected in a growing number of overdose deaths, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
The DEA’s Diversion Control Division spearheads efforts to prevent, detect, and investigate the diversion of controlled pharmaceuticals and listed chemicals from legitimate sources. However, the DEA and law enforcement agencies cannot keep up with the pace of legal drugs being diverted to illegal activity.
Street-level Fentanyl Investigations
Many police departments are turning to innovative investigative solutions like open-source intelligence (OSINT) technology to help officers reduce the risk of perpetual fentanyl overdoses and identify those involved in the drug trade. However, stemming the flow of fentanyl goes well beyond OSINT. Law enforcement needs the combination of OSINT, signal intelligence such as device analysis, human intelligence, and the ability to track the supply side of fentanyl, especially legitimate drugs that are being diverted for illicit drug trafficking.
Police officers at the street level can retrieve information from the phones of victims who have overdosed. Then they can conduct forensic analysis of the victim’s cell phone to potentially find the seller. Many times, dealers use fake profiles and “handles” to mask their identity. Using an AI-powered OSINT solution can help unmask these identities. If they can trace information to a dealer, they can identify others struggling with fentanyl addiction and in need of assistance. Or, the can identify large networks of threat actors working together to move this drug across the border. Moreover, if investigators have multiple devices from overdosed victims, they can reverse engineer those devices and see if the victims were in similar locations or find patterns that can help trace the phone numbers to those people who are selling the opioids. These tactics used together can help uncover drug rings and can get help to those most in need.
This is all very useful information, but for the most part it is reactive. To significantly disrupt the flow of fentanyl, law enforcement must be proactive.
Follow the Cryptocurrency Trail in Fentanyl Investigations
Law enforcement is looking at how criminal organizations are using online marketplaces to provide anonymity, connect buyers and sellers, and allow a range of payment methods, such as cryptocurrency.
An example of the problem is a Coraopolis, Pennsylvania man, who was recently charged with running a counterfeit drug ring that sold fentanyl and methamphetamine disguised as Oxycontin, Xanax and Adderall on a darknet marketplace. The man only accepted cryptocurrency in exchange for the controlled substance. After the payment was confirmed, the man and his network would pack the drugs in vacuum-sealed packaging, packaging materials, and padded shipping envelopes to disguise the substance, and would drop the packages in various U.S. Postal Service drop boxes in West Virginia and Pennsylvania for shipment throughout the country.
In a case like this, OSINT can help investigators examine relationship flows across applications, online platforms, phone numbers or email addresses. They can also examine flows of money, such as Bitcoin, going into a bank account or online wallet. If the bank is in the U.S., law enforcement can subpoena the account, gaining access to a person’s personal information and financial transactions.
Holistic View of Fentanyl Investigations
There are many moving parts of the drug trafficking ecosystem, including social platforms, websites used for advertising, companies involved in the manufacturing of drugs, cryptocurrency being used for financial transactions, and more. Too often, investigators are manually searching all this disparate information, which slows down the process.
OSINT technology can help law enforcement catch up with the pace of changing trends. For example, OSINT technology can identify chemical names or Chemical Abstract Services (CAS) Registry numbers. CAS numbers provide an unambiguous way to identify a chemical substance or molecular structure when there are many possible systematic, generic, proprietary or trivial names. Drug traffickers selling chemical substances to cartels online communicate through numbers rather than words.
There was a case in which a Chinese company sold fentanyl, and, as a result, was sanctioned and shut down. A few days later the company reopened under a new name but with the same corporate structure. Investigators were able to identify the company and shut it down again.
OSINT, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), identifies the connections and patterns between hotspots, locations and persons of interest. OSINT-driven tools can scour all available public sources of information as well as the deep and dark web, analyzing the findings to help officers supplement their investigations – reactively and proactively.
OSINT Makes a Difference in Fentanyl Investigations
To make a lasting difference in the fight against fentanyl production and trafficking, police departments need innovative investigations solutions that integrate open-source information. . OSINT can aggregate data to highlight the various web connections between victims, drug sellers, and the companies and criminal gangs responsible for manufacturing and distributing fentanyl and other opioids. It is an effective tool in an arsenal of other tools needed to reduce fentanyl-related overdoses, put criminals behind bars, and make our communities safer.