Michigan officers participate in training to fight sale of opioids on dark web

People buying, selling opioids on dark web with currency difficult to track

By Meaghan St Pierre - Producer

DETROIT - Homeland Security Investigations is training members of the law enforcement community to tackle a new challenge in the opioid crisis: people buying and selling opioids, including fentanyl, carfentanil and other synthetic drugs, on the dark web with currency that is difficult to track.

The opioids are manufactured abroad and then shipped to the United States.

Homeland Security Investigations officials said they have seen the drugs in both pill format and used to cut other drugs, including heroin and cocaine.

Nearly 500 officers from Michigan and Ohio participated in the training that focused on cybercurrency and the dark web, including the financial transactions connected with fentanyl smuggling and distribution networks.

"We're trying to provide them the information they need to conduct investigations where they focus on cryptocurrency, virtual currency and narcotics trafficking through the dark net," said Angie Salazar, deputy special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Michigan and Ohio.

The most popular crypto currencies include bitcoin, litecoin, bitcoin cash, ethereum, ripple and monero. However there are multiple exchanges that use other cryptocurrencies. The anonymity with digital currency makes it hard for investigators to follow the money. 

"Our focus is to look at that type of activity that's going on the internet and really try to identify where is the crime happening and how can we locate it, and helping our state local law enforcement partners do the same," Salazar said. "What we're doing is finding the shipment, finding the drugs and then trying to work it backwards, just like we would follow the money, but now we're following the money through the internet."

Michael Wendling, the prosecuting attorney in St. Clair County, took part in the training by Homeland Security Investigations.

"I am gravely concerned for the amount of packages that get through that net," Wendling said. "The dark web provides through different routers and different signal locations an opportunity for people to order a substance without being able to track where it was ordered from or where it is being ordered to, and through that dark web, a lot of illegal transactions occur."

St. Clair County Sheriff Timothy Donnellon said members of his drug team benefit from the training.

"Everything ties into the opiates, you know, the deaths, the violence, all of these other crimes, home invasions, basically almost every single person in our jail is here either on drug charges or related to drug charges," Donnellon said. "It may show a robbery or home invasion, but they're not necessarily thieves, they're drug addicts that are breaking into houses to try to feed their habit, and with the deaths we're seeing in overdoses, it's a crisis for us."

St. Clair County is already seeing cases involving the dark web.

"The last two cases that involved shipping drugs into our county, one shipment came from the Netherlands through cybercurrency and we also had a shipment that came in through China also (using)cybercurrency," Wendling said.

Everyone agrees that working together is the only way to stop the crisis.

"We ask that if you know of anything, please report it, because it could be life-saving. We don't know where these drugs are coming from, we don't know what they're made of, and so reporting it really is key for us to be able to save lives," Salazar said.

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