Cell phones cause hang-up for police to track drug deals

But they can be a double-edged sword for criminals as law enforcement is getting better at cracking them

Veteran drug cops can recall the good old days when it was possible to monitor drug dealers by staking out phone booths.

Those days are long gone, as drug dealers now use cell phones to conduct business, making them harder to pin down, Medford police Deputy Chief Tim George said.

"Cell phones have made it harder to contain the drug business because dope dealers have become very mobile," George said. "When I was on patrol, I used to monitor phone booths because that's where they would go to make deals. Now you're lucky if you can even find a phone booth that even works."

Disposable cell phones, which are sold at various department stores and markets around the county, are popular with drug dealers, George said.

Calls made on these prepaid disposable phones are difficult to trace and often dealers will dump them after a few uses, George said.

A recent large-scale drug bust, deemed "Street Sweeper" by Medford police, is case-in-point in how the drug market has changed with new technology, George said.

"Street Sweeper" netted more than 20 low-level drug dealers from across Jackson County. Cops who worked that case said a large chunk of the transactions made by the dealers were via cell phone.

Instead of moving a hefty amount of product at one time for sale, drug dealers now carry small amounts of drugs to various points for sale.

"The dealers set up their transactions through quick cell phone calls and text messages," George said. "It's hard to keep track of them."

However, the prevalence of cell phones in the drug business is a double-edged sword for criminals, said Central Point Sgt. Josh Moulin, who is the supervisor of the Southern Oregon High-Tech Crimes Task Force.

Moulin's team is tasked with cracking into cell phones confiscated from drug dealers. Digital forensic examiners have found a wealth of damning evidence stored on cell phones over the years, Moulin said.

"For some reason, a lot of people in the narcotics world enjoy taking pictures of themselves either doing or selling drugs," Moulin said. "We've found a lot of images of people in possession of large amounts of drugs. It makes for good cases."

Also, examiners can link call histories from cell phones, which allows them to track drug networks that can reach across the entire West Coast, Moulin said.

"We work with state and federal agencies in these larger cases," Moulin said.

Examiners can snatch valuable information from the disposable cell phones, but these cases take more time to complete, Moulin said.

"There are times when we can pull deleted information off any cell phone," Moulin said. "But it depends on the type of phone and the provider. There are a lot of variables we work with."

George and Moulin said officers will need to keep up with the changing technology in the coming years.

"A lot of the new iPhones are like powerful little computers that can fit in your pocket," Moulin said. "It's a challenge we are going to face going forward."

Reach reported Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.


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