The dark web and the North Dakota drug trade

Local News

We continue our deep dive into what’s hidden on the dark web, and how it hits home in North Dakota.

As we reported Wednesday, the dark web is a huge online marketplace hidden below the surface of the internet, where users can buy any illicit product imaginable.

Thursday, we’re talking about the online drug trade.

It might sound crazy, but on one dark web site alone there could be upwards of tens of thousands of drug options for sale.

In a KX News exclusive, we sat down with the Special Agent in Charge of DEA operations for the upper midwest. We discussed, in-depth, how the dark web drug trade has a grasp on the country and on North Dakota.

We asked Special Agent in Charge Richard Salter if he considers the dark web a hot spot for selling drugs in the upper midwest.

He responded, “It could be. We are getting into dark web sales. It’s something that’s starting, so we really don’t know how bad it is. So, I can tell you….we don’t know.” He repeated, “We don’t know, we don’t know.”

Richard Salter is the Special Agent in Charge for the DEA’s Omaha Division, covering Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota and North Dakota.

He went on to say, the influence of drugs from the dark web is likely a lot worse than we know.

When asked, “At the end of the day, how many cases lead back to the dark web?” Salter shared, “I can just say it’s not near what it should be.”

We then asked if the DEA keeps statistics at all about cases that lead back to the dark web.

“It wouldn’t be hard to pull those statistics, but right now, no we don’t,” Salter answered.

As of Oct. 1, 2019, the DEA did assign a specific tracking code to all cases involving a definite cyber component for the very first time. These include, but are not limited to, Dark Web Cases.

Since tracking began in October, the DEA has opened 369 cyber cases across the U.S.

“And there’s a learning curve to this for our investigators,” Salter added. “Because your traditional investigators that have come on the job in the last 10 years, they weren’t really trained how to do cyber investigations.”

In this new era of investigation, the DEA is now working to recruit agents with backgrounds in cybersecurity and network engineering. Salter says it was about seven years ago, with the shut down of The Silk Road, that the DEA, FBI and all other agencies started putting a heavier focus on what’s going on in the depths of the internet.

And for criminals, there’s a lot of appeal to the dark web drug trade.

“It’s a whole lot safer to go to the dark web and purchase something illegal than it is to find a dealer, meet a dealer, meet them on the street,” Salter explained.

He says in the upper midwest, where it’s remote and you can get snowed in more than half of the year, ordering drugs online and having them delivered to your doorstep looks more and more convenient.

So far, Salter says North Dakota plays more of a “user” role in the online drug trade, meaning as far as the DEA knows, North Dakotans are accessing the dark web to buy drugs, not to sell them.

“Users are typically addicts. Addicts need treatment. We go after the dealers, we want to take the dealers out,” he shared.

The hitch is, dealers are coming from all over the world, likely concentrated in Mexico. Salter says if all sellers were set up with servers in the U.S., it’d be a much quicker take-down operation.

“It gets difficult because you need the cooperation of the host country, of their law enforcement, of their internet service providers, to pin down where that server’s located,” he said.

Right now, Salter says the DEA is still swamped with street-level dealers, and that’s still the biggest fight in North Dakota.

He says tracking cyber cases just isn’t mainstream yet…but it’s getting there.

“It’s not a cloak of invisibility, but it’s a ski mask. Because, can we get to them? Can we identify them? Yeah. It doesn’t make you completely anonymous,” Salter warned.

He says, at the end of the day, federal laws will have to change to give law enforcement more access to have a chance at taking down these anonymous kingpins.

The Special Agent in Charge says the agency’s biggest problem right now, is fake prescription pill sales.

He says Mexican cartels are always looking to feed a demand in the U.S., and Americans want prescription pills.

The problem is, the pills people are buying from the cartels are not real, and even worse, they look real.

Salter says the DEA is seeing this more and more in the last few years, as a direct rebound from the opioid crisis started at the doctor’s office.

What the agency is finding is that if someone purchased what they thought was Adderall, it’s actually meth. If someone was looking for Xanax, they end up with Fentanyl or a combination of heroin and Fentanyl. Fake Oxycodone pills are often a combination mixed with Fentanyl too.

And particularly for those who have never touched Fentanyl, 3 to 5 micrograms, or the equivalent of 5 grains of salt, is lethal.

“We’re losing the equivalent of a jetliner going down every day in this country. So a Boeing 737 crashing every day, that’s how many people we’re losing to overdose deaths,” Salter emphasized.

He says this is the DEA’s biggest concern right now across the entire country, affecting urban and rural areas alike.

He says the buyers range from college kids looking for amphetamines like Adderall, to pain patients who can no longer afford their prescriptions.

KX News reached out to a local addiction treatment center to see if the dark web has become a trend in the capital city.

Heartview Foundation Director Kurt Snyder says, “yes”. He says numerous staff members have reported working with patients who say they get their drugs through the dark web.

Snyder added, they are aware of the trend, but he wouldn’t say any staff members are experts in the online drug market.

Read his full statement below:

“I have numerous staff members that have worked with patients who report getting their drugs from the dark web. However, none of my staff would put themselves out there as being experts on the dark web. But yes, we are aware of many individuals.”

We also reached out to multiple police departments on this topic.

When it comes to fake prescription pills in North Dakota, Minot Police Chief John Klug said the department is aware of the dark web as a source to buy drugs in the Minot area.

He told KX News that the pills have started to come around more in recent years after producers in other countries like Mexico or China started using Fentanyl as one of the primary substances to lace with, or replace other drugs, like heroin, cocaine or meth.

However, the Chief of Police noticed that tracking items sold on the dark web is difficult to keep up with, and oftentimes other agencies are involved beyond MPD.

Chief Klug noted that when these pills show up in Minot, that usually means they’re likely not just in the Magic City. He says this includes showing up 100 miles away in the capital city and beyond.

The Bismarck Police Department reported they have not seen any instances of fake prescription pills.

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