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Online Drug Vendors Exploiting United States Postal Service

Online drug vendors are anonymously delivering their products through the US Postal Service, and the constitutional right to privacy is preventing law enforcement from stopping them.

A prominent feature of purchasing drugs via darknet markets – anonymous online marketplaces, accessed through encryption software – is the delivery of drugs directly to the consumer’s desired location. Buyers send their encrypted addresses to online drug vendors who then ship their products, disguised as other goods, using normal postal services. Although private companies, such as FedEx and UPS, are being used by drug vendors, one of the more popular services of choice for low-level drug trafficking is the United States Postal Service (USPS).

USPS is a government agency and therefore the only domestic postal service in the United States that upholds the Fourth Amendment – the constitutional right to privacy. Unlike privately run postal services, USPS First Class parcels cannot be opened or searched without a warrant issued from a federal court. If any package is deemed to be “suspicious” by the USPS due to its appearance or odour, a criminal investigation with supporting evidence must first be opened with the Postal Inspection Service.

However, such surveillance operations are limited to making “mail covers”; photographing parcels and recording all their details (sender and recipient’s names and addresses) on a database which can later be accessed if a warrant is produced.

Online drug vendors are aware of USPS’ privacy protection, and have developed techniques to disguise illegal substances so they can pass any external tests that could be conducted on a parcel. As vendors are dependent on strong reviews and high ratings from their customers, they ensure to maintain "stealth" in their delivery; effectively hiding drugs to avoid raising law enforcement’s suspicions.

It is in the consumer’s interest to purchase from a vendor that can expertly avoid detection and assure that the products arrive safely. Top stealth vendors use moisture proof, vacuum sealed bags to remove odours; they conceal drugs in seemingly innocuous objects, like birthday cards or DVDs, so that postal workers who feel the packages will be none the wiser. In addition to these measures, top vendors establish fictitious companies and addresses to deter even the most persistent of law enforcement efforts.

Paul Krenn, an assistant inspector at the Postal Inspection Service, asserts that huge quantities of drugs are being trafficked through USPS; in 2013, he claimed, around 13,000 drug parcels (up 18 percent from the previous year) were seized, including over 20,000kg (45,000lbs) of cannabis. This trend will likely continue rising, as USPS has been hamstrung by budget cuts and dwindling personnel meaning they lack the material and human resources to extensively investigate the 155 billion pieces of mail annually sorted and delivered.

Legislative reform to allow authorities to search packages is unlikely to occur, as any restrictions of private rights would be heavily challenged. Although there has been a sole case of USPS workers tracking a buyer through analysis of his digital postal trail, online drug markets are presenting unprecedented technical challenges to conventional drug interdiction techniques. 

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