Drug dealers are targeting teenagers on social media platforms. A narcotics detective shares advice with parents on what to look for on kids' phones. (Sponsored by TalkNowAZ.com)

PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - An Arizona drug task force says the latest trend they're fighting is social media apps being used like a DoorDash for drugs, bringing illegal narcotics into unsuspecting neighborhoods through cellphones.

The Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA Taskforce, is now devoting 30% of its time to Snapchat surveillance, and say they've seized more than $3 Million cash in the last three years on just those cases.

We spent the day with Maricopa County Detective Matt Shay, who's worked narcotics more than 20 years. Now on the task force, he showed us what his team looks for to help parents do a better job, as dealers target ever- younger users on these popular social media platforms.

Shay says dealers are using social media to show off what they've got: drugs, guns, and stacks of cash, infiltrating online feeds of teens who are curious about this flashy lifestyle.

Arizona teens are overdosing at alarming rates

And detectives say with more addicts and overdoses by the day, dealers are offering drivers on demand, delivering any drug to your door, 24/7. "The social media app has changed the game when it comes to narcotics," Shay said.

You don't have to go to a seedy neighborhood or know someone who knows someone to buy drugs anymore. Dealers are using the same apps as our kids, advertising totally out in the open; cocaine, fentanyl, you name it.

Shay says it's not if, but when your kid will come across this online. He says simple hashtags and emojis can open up a world of illegal activity that can now be summoned right to your neighborhood by anyone.

"Nowadays the crack house comes to us through our phones," Shay said. "A lot of it's very brazen. 'Kilo of cocaine, wanna buy it? This is how much it costs. Methamphetamine by the pound, ounce, gram, what do you need? Psilocybin mushrooms, DMT, and of course, fentanyl.' Fentanyl's all over the place and just massive amounts; it's crazy."

Shay says it's easy for anyone who's curious to search the hashtags for drugs or the emoji symbols for them on apps. And then, anyone you follow can share what they're looking at. "So, my child doesn't have to be out there looking for drugs. You'll have a friend, or a friend's friend that will just end up giving them a peek of it," Shay said. And once you open that door, before you know it, he says your feed's flooded with solicitations.

He pulled up his undercover Snapchat feed where one post showed three emojis; a maple leaf, blue M &M, and snowflake, captioned 'deals all day,' with a phone emoji.

He translated that to: "Marijuana, M, or M-30's (fentanyl), snowflake, cocaine. Deals all day. Call me up, he'll deliver. And then, he'll show a little of the product."

Sure enough, the next screen in that snapchat story, was a close up of marijuana buds. And he says they'll sell to anyone. Like any wannabe social media influencer, drug dealers love to brag. Shay's team recently arrested one guy who used Snapchat to show off his diamond Rolex, gold-dipped Glock and cash-stuffed pockets.

"All of that makes it almost appealing to the younger generation that maybe is watching TV and stuff like that, thinking what a cool lifestyle that is. And some of them are going to fall trap to that," Shay said.

Along with more than $3 million cash just off Snapchat cases, his team's also seized countless drugs, and every kind of gun you can imagine. Almost 20% of them have been traced to other crimes. "Guns are currency," he said, explaining how they can be more valuable than cash south of the border to the cartels.

"We seize maybe one-tenth of what's out there; that's just the reality."

"Here's a shorty AR- 15 with a grenade launcher! And this is the same guy getting sentenced today," Shay said.

It's like Whack-a-mole. While he's sometimes blown away by the size and scope of certain operations run so out in the open advertising on Snapchat, they're often eclipsed by another search warrant the next day, topping that haul.

One day, they're shutting down an operation run out of a high-rise penthouse in Tempe, the next, they're tracking- down the dealer who sold coke and fentanyl to a local college student who overdosed and died. It happens more often that you think.

"And that story has repeated itself, unfortunately, again and again. Not just with kids that are in college or in high school, younger, all sorts of different things. Horrible. Tragic," Shay said.

It's easy is for well-intentioned parents to do spot checks on their kids' phones and miss signs. "Oh absolutely! Everyone has a certain amount of trust in their kids, right?"

Shay said even fellow officers have come across their own kids buying drugs through apps on their phones when they did a deeper dive.

How to look for red flags

Start by checking screen time. That will show you the most used apps on any phone on any given day. Then you can scroll those feeds to see what your kids are looking at. See who they're talking to in private messages. Check those profiles, especially if you see names you don't recognize. Seemingly innocent emojis stand for drug lingo you need to know:

  • Water = Meth
  • A snowflake = Cocaine
  • Trees or leaves = Marijuana
  • A Blue M&M = Fentanyl
  • A plug = dealer.

"The nature of being an adolescent is that you're curious about things, right? And so, we have to be able to understand that they're going to be curious and talk to them about these things ahead of time," Shay said.

You can find drugs on any app, like Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok. Shay says it's just most popular on Snapchat right now because of the extra layer of anonymity the app offers. Users get an alert if anyone records or screengrabs their post. "If it allows them to stay anonymous, they will do it as long as they can until they don't feel safe anymore," Shay said.

Meantime, he says those dealers will keep delivering to whoever's paying. "Yeah, they'll go wherever you want them to go and they'll bring guns with them," Shay said. That ups the ante for violence that can potentially play out at your corner convenience store, your neighborhood, your driveway. "It's not potential. It's happening," Shay said.

That's why he says even if it's not your kid, we can't pretend there's not collateral damage that impacts all of us. Will a drug deal end in a robbery? Will a stray bullet hit an innocent kid? It's high-stakes roulette every time.

"Snapchat could easily be identifying these accounts and contacting law enforcement," Shay said.

Apps have shown us in the last year they can and do monitor accounts real time, flagging and suspending people based on content like politics or the pandemic.

"How about blue M& Ms?" Shay asked. "How about you flag that one? Blue M&Ms would be a good one to take a look at."

He says apps have a social responsibility to do more to stop obvious illegal activity. "It would seem pretty easy for them to locate someone that's been advertising kilos of cocaine, thousands of fentanyl pills, " Shay said.

And until they do, we have to accept the reality that we can't protect our families by keeping a physical distance from the problem now that apps offer a virtual drug house, accessible on every phone, in every home.

Snapchat says it's committed to working with law enforcement and has "zero tolerance" for anyone using its platform for Illegal purposes. They also said they're "constantly improving" technology to "detect drug-related activity so that we can intervene proactively."

Shay said waiting on Snapchat to turn over what they have on accounts can take up to six weeks with a warrant and who knows how many people will overdose from those drugs hitting the streets in the meantime. He knows law enforcement can't do it alone and hopes this will be a wakeup call for families to have some honest conversations, to maybe even agree to look at it together with your kids to quench that curiosity, encourage them to ask questions, so you can explain the dangers and how just one pill can kill.

This publication was made possible by grant number H79TI083320 from SAMHSA. The views, opinions and content of this publication are those of TalkNowAZ.com and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or policies of SAMHSA or HHS.

Copyright 2021 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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