Here's how drug dealers use Snapchat and Instagram to reach kids

Overdoses are on the rise across the country and right here in the DMV.

On Tuesday, a student at Wakefield High School was found unconscious in a school bathroom suffering from an overdose.

Last week a similar situation played out in Montgomery County Public Schools.

With a renewed focus on Fentanyl-related deaths among young people, we are now seeing the drug epidemic move to social media and many parents have no clue it’s happening.

FOX 5 spoke to an expert who is helping people decipher the drug deals that can turn deadly.

Many of us think if you are buying drugs, you’d typically go to a street corner or scour the dark web.

But an expert told FOX 5 that simple emojis and keywords are linking kids directly to drug dealers on platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.

Alex Neville was a 14-year-old Boy Scout, a skateboarder, and even had his own business selling childhood toys. But as a new high schooler looking to fit in, Alex was experimenting with drugs.

"He had this funky 10 days in June of 2020, where things were just really off," said his mother, Amy Neville.

Days later, Alex died after taking Oxycodone laced with Fentanyl. He got the pills from a drug dealer on Snapchat.

"As parents, we had tools, we had resources. We were taking action," Neville said. "Again, we did not know about Fentanyl. And we did not know about the depth of harms on social media."

READ MORE: Parents push for Congress to address Snapchat drug dealers

A recent study found the rate of overdose deaths among U.S. teens nearly doubled in 2020 and rose another 20% in the first half of 2021.

"Your drug dealer is now your kids' phone."

Eric Feinberg, vice president of Coalition for a Safer Web, created a fake Instagram account in 2018 to exchange messages directly with drug dealers.

He helped us decipher what’s known as the Emoji drug code.

"A plug that’s a hookup," Feinberg explained. 

A pill, parking sign, banana, or a blue circle are all symbols to describe Percocet or Oxycodone.

"Xanax with a ‘Z,’ Percocet with two ‘t’s,’" Feinberg added.

He showed FOX 5 exactly how these illegal drug transactions work. 

"They might be sharing in their Snapchat or TikTok or whatever they’re posting that they’re suffering from anxiety or things going on in their life and again groups or accounts troll on this and then go after them," Feinberg explained. "Before you know it, they’re leading them down the path to these illegal drugs."

"They never ask for my age and sometimes I kind of go, 'I’m 17 years old, do I need a credit card?" Feinberg added. 

RELATED: Inside a DEA special lab where drugs are tested daily

The DEA’s Washington division told FOX 5 they confiscated nearly 160,000 fake pills containing Fentanyl and more than 250 pounds of Fentanyl powder last year alone.

"That’s enough to kill 54%, half of all the residents in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C.," said Special Agent Jarod Forget.

The fight by law enforcement to take down these drug dealers isn’t easy.

"You take down one account selling illegal drugs, the same guy will come back," Feinberg said. "Lets say he’s illegaldruguser101, he’ll come back as illegaldruguser102."

That’s why Feinberg says he is working behind the scenes with lawmakers to show them first-hand how to find dealers on these apps.

"How many more of these parents need to do this on their own?" he questioned. 

READ MORE: Youth overdose deaths increased by 120% in Montgomery County

Moms like Amy Neville say they’ll continue to call for change at the federal level to hold social media companies accountable.

"That 17 and under age group needs protection, especially when it comes to Snapchat," she said. "We need to be able to see what our kids are talking about. There's no reason why as a parent, I can't have access to that."

Snapchat responded to FOX 5's request for a comment saying: 

"We are committed to doing our part to fight the national Fentanyl poisoning crisis, which includes using cutting-edge technology to help us proactively find and shut down drug dealers’ accounts. We block search results for drug-related terms, redirecting Snapchatters to resources from experts about the dangers of Fentanyl. We continually expand our support for law enforcement investigations helping them bring dealers to justice, and we work closely with experts to share patterns of dealers' activities across platforms to more quickly identify and stop illegal behavior. We will continue to do everything we can to tackle this epidemic, including by working with other tech companies, public health agencies, law enforcement, families and nonprofits."