Drug dealers using emojis to target teens — here's what parents should know

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) recently issued an emoji drug decoder to help parents know if, or when, their children are texting about illegal drugs.

It shows the various combinations of just emojis that drug dealers are using to communicate primarily with middle and high school students.

In a FOX 32 Special Report, Dane Placko shows us why it’s important for parents to know their emojis and their apps.

By themselves, each of the emojis looks innocent enough. But when you put them together, it can spell trouble.

"You will see 50 cookies. You'll have a bomb. And then you'll have this emoji here of a Xanax," said Shane Catone.

Catone is the Deputy Special Agent in charge of the DEA’s Chicago Division. He says that string of emojis means a dealer is looking to sell 50 potent Xanax pills.

"The reason why we put it out is we were looking at social media and we had a bunch of overdoses that we've identified," Catone said. "Doing our investigation, the intelligence aspect of it, we realized there was a bunch of emojis showing up on the phones of some of the deceased."

Catone says traffickers started communicating through emojis because they were looking for new customers — teenagers.

"I do know there are emojis you can use as code words to kind of hide it … and make sure things like social media posts don't get filtered," said Lockport High School senior Brinda Parikah.


Parikah is a member of Lockport High School's chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions, or SADD for short. The group's focus includes drug prevention among students — something the emoji drug texts make more difficult, especially for parents.

"I think definitely not. Like, especially with no words and just emojis. I feel like parents would not know this at all," said Lockport senior Isabella Rarick.

Because teens spend so much time on social media, Catone says that’s where traffickers try to target them.

"They are advertising this now on Snapchat. On Facebook. Facebook Messenger," Catone said. "These applications are doing 24-hour ads that have these emojis and code words in them."

"The next phase is they connect. That's when the kids go on WhatsApp. … because they think hey, they (parents) may look at texts but they are not going to go in to these WhatsApp messages. Things you can delete instantaneous," Catone added.

After that, all the student has to do is pay, which means more apps, like Venmo or Cash App.

"One of the things I find fascinating, there are young people, teenaged kids that are trafficking in pills," Catone said. "They are doing it in school because they can make money ordering the batch, ordering the large amount and then they can sell it in school easily."


Once ordered, Catone says it's easy for a student to peddle the pills in a school bathroom or even on the football field.

"I can’t get into specific investigations … on what we are doing but I know definitively that this is happening," Catone said. "It’s happening in the city of Chicago. It’s happening in every city across the country."

And since kids don’t like to show parents their phone, Catone says it’s important for parents to look for changes in their children's behavior, and to use the drug emoji chart as a way to start a conversation about drugs.

"I would absolutely recommend if you are going to give a child a cellphone, that you address absolutely all the applications, all of the dangers, especially the emojis that could show up on their phone because they are targeting those kids," Catone said.

The DEA says it's expecting the emoji chart to grow exponentially, which is why they recommend parents keep checking it periodically. To see their drug emoji decoder chart, visit HERE.

The DEA adds every child that is 12 or older is likely to be faced with an opportunity to use a drug.