Boba Fett, blue fish, and fettuccine: How L.A. fentanyl sales boomed on Craigslist (2024)

At first glance, the items listed for sale on Craigslist seemed benign: Blue socks. A fancy china set. A collectible action figure.

But there was odd lingo slipped into the otherwise mundane posts. The socks were “pressed.” Buyers could “try” a plate from the china set “to guarantee quality.” And the action figure was “pure.”

The phrasing was one giveaway they were advertising illicit fentanyl, according to several drug market experts who reviewed dozens of suspicious posts identified by The Times.

The open sale of drugs has been a long-standing problem on Craigslist. Over the last decade, a handful of people have overdosed and died after buying fentanyl through the site, yet until recent months The Times found ads for them remained commonplace, especially in Southern California.

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“People have been able to buy drugs on Craigslist for a long time,” said Chelsea Shover, a UCLA researcher who studies drug use. “But these ads seem qualitatively different in how brazen a lot of them are.”

Craigslist founder and namesake Craig Newmark declined to comment, deferring to the site’s current leadership and noting that he has not been involved for many years. Craigslist and its lawyers did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The site’s terms of use bar the sale of prescription pills and illegal drugs.

Until April, typing certain letters into Craigslist’s search bar would prompt predictive text suggestions for a variety of drug terms. After reporters began asking questions, the search function stopped offering many of those suspicious keywords, and the number of posts in the L.A. area that appeared to be openly selling fentanyl sharply declined.

Several other sites and apps almost eliminated drug postings years ago after scrutiny by law enforcement, yet drug dealers on Craigslist seemingly remained active, using a colorful assortment of code words to operate in plain sight.

“If you know, you know,” said Shover. “And if not, it might not create a suspicion.”

Frosting and Fetty Wap

The features that have made Craigslist appealing for drug dealers and buyers are some of the same reasons the low-tech site has endured for so long: It’s free, easy to use, and anonymous, with no account needed to post and reply to listings.

Law enforcement officials say the convenience has enabled people to buy drugs more easily than in years past. There’s no need to find someone who knows a dealer, or take the risk of making a buy on the street. All it takes is a phone or computer, and a few seconds to type some terms into a search bar.

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“All those barriers that kept a lot of people away from drugs, those have been removed,” said Bill Bodner, former special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Los Angeles field division. “You can live in Brentwood and get heroin delivered to your house in 20 minutes.”

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Users caught selling items prohibited by Craigslist’s terms of use can have their listings removed and potentially face fines of $4 per post, although it’s unclear how that penalty is collected or how frequently people are actually asked to pay.

Posts that violate the rules can be flagged — either by other users, Craigslist staff or the platform’s automated systems. As a result, the academic and law enforcement experts said, dealers tend to get creative with coded language to evade detection.

Because heroin is sometimes referred to as China white, Shover explained, some dealers post ads offering “fine china.” A 30-milligram blue oxycodone pill, she said, becomes a 30-piece blue tool set. A list of “Slang Terms and Code Words” released by the DEA in 2018 includes “china, chinese food, and chinese buffet” as known heroin terms, along with “blues” for oxycodone.

Crystal meth becomes Christina Aguilera tickets, the UCLA researcher said. The singer’s name has been used as a meth code word for decades, with a New York Post article from 2005 noting its use even then by Craigslist dealers.

“One giveaway is the number of ads,” Shover said. “If someone is actually selling their blue china plates, they probably haven’t put up 30 ads. Another tell is concert tickets for a concert that isn’t happening.”

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Fentanyl — sometimes known as fetty or fet — has its own colorful array of code words: Confetti-flavored frosting, fettuccine or fetty, like the rapper Fetty Wap, according to the experts.

When three drug and law enforcement experts reviewed a series of recent Craigslist listings containing those and other keywords, they confirmed the posts were almost certainly covert drug ads.

One L.A. Craigslist ad that raised eyebrows was posted in February, titled “White Boba Fett Action Figure.” The seller did not respond to an inquiry, but there were red flags that Shover and Bodner said indicated a toy was not for sale.

“This is pure Boba Fett, before any influence of the Sith or other contaminating forces,” the ad stated, probably using Star Wars references to tout the purity of the drugs on offer. “Serious fans only.”

The seller noted the merchandise was “made in China” and warned that buyers would face “security checks.” Approved customers could expect “consistent and fast” delivery, but the deals “must be in person.”

Other sellers warned of similar security screenings for seemingly ordinary items. One titled “Fettucini Box — (6) fine china,” promised buyers: “once you pass the verification process, you won’t need another bulk supplier.”

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Another ad titled “Fish that are blue for sale” included a picture of a fish with “M30” scribbled over it. The shorthand has no obvious connection to undersea creatures, but Shover and Bodner say it’s a common slang term for blue 30-milligram oxycodone pills and fentanyl-laced counterfeit versions of them.

Three people who posted suspicious ads on Craigslist this year confirmed in online messages that their thinly veiled listings for other goods were in fact offers for fentanyl. One told The Times he’d been selling drugs through Craigslist for about five years. He said he considered it a reliable way to build his customer base without selling on a street corner.

The dealer — who requested anonymity because he feared arrest — said the ads he’s used have also changed over time, usually in response to whatever terms get flagged as suspicious. He used to post Fetty Wap concert ticket listings, for example, but had to shift to other phrases.

“I’ve seen an ad for roofing tar,” he said, explaining that it was actually a reference to black tar heroin. “They’re trying to say they have fetty without being too blunt.”

Another dealer who operates out of the San Fernando Valley and also requested anonymity, citing fear of police, said he had similar experiences on Craigslist. In one ad, titled “funFETti cupcakes w/ fun fet frosting,” he offered “several delicious batches of cupcakes ready to go, of course the most popular flavor funfetti is always on hand!” and directed potential buyers to “Call or text anytime day or night.”

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The dealer who said he’d been using the site for five years told Times reporters that he insists on meeting potential buyers in a public place and screens for law enforcement, in part by asking first-time customers to use drugs with him. Getting high together, he said, also allows him to look for new users who might be more prone to overdose. He won’t take on those sorts of clients, he said, adding that he always brings the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

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He said he’s tried selling through other popular platforms — including Telegram, where large group chats have become a common venue for drug sales — but he keeps coming back to Craigslist.

“On Craigslist, you just have to know what to type for,” he said. “Or you’re not going to find it.”

‘Roxy board shorts’

Henry Zurkow was an honors student at the University of Colorado in Boulder, a mecca for two of his passions, mountaineering and snowboarding. A native of Scarsdale, N.Y., he had climbed all 46 peaks of the Adirondacks four times, according to his father, Peter Zurkow.

The elder Zurkow described his son as resilient and driven. But he said Henry had repeatedly battled sports injuries and was eventually prescribed painkillers. For a time, he struggled with addiction — to opioids and Xanax — but he went to rehab and his parents said they believed he’d stopped using.

Boba Fett, blue fish, and fettuccine: How L.A. fentanyl sales boomed on Craigslist (3)

Henry Zurkow, an honors student in college who had climbed the 46 peaks of the Adirondacks, died in July 2022 of a fentanyl overdose, according to his father, Peter Zurkow.

(Courtesy of the Zurkow family)

But on the night of July 16, 2022, the 23-year-old had been having trouble sleeping and was in pain from an old snowboarding injury, according to his mother, Erica. Messages recovered from his phone show he texted a dealer seeking pills — it’s unclear what type — and set up a buy that investigators believe took place in the Bronx, not far from his parents’ home, where he spent much of that summer.

“We know he said to the person, ‘I got your name and information off Craigslist,’” Peter Zurkow said.

The following morning, he found his son dead in his bedroom, folded over his desk with his head on his computer keyboard. According to the medical examiner, the cause of death was fentanyl intoxication — an overdose.

Now, Peter Zurkow thinks Craigslist should be doing more to keep dealers from using the platform as a digital billboard.

“I believe there is a burden on them to try to regulate content,” he said.

Erica Zurkow agreed. If Craigslist had cracked down harder on drug-dealing, she said, “maybe our son and a lot of other people would be alive.”

Today, the Zurkows try to temper their sorrow by doing what they can to help others avoid a similar fate.

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“One way we deal with grief is we find ways to talk about Henry,” Peter said. “We tell people to test their drugs, make sure Narcan is available, make sure there’s friends around.”

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It’s unclear whether Craigslist made any changes to crack down on drug sales in response to Henry’s death — or any of the handful of others Times reporters identified through a review of news articles, medical examiner reports and court records.

A Costa Mesa man, Tobin Oliver Wood, 49, who prosecutors said posted a Craigslist ad offering “Roxy board shorts,” was sentenced to more than five years in federal prison in 2022 for selling counterfeit oxycodone pills — also known as “roxys” — that caused the 2018 fentanyl overdose of a 32-year-old San Clemente man.

Another Craigslist dealer, 25-year-old Andrew Madi of Hollywood, was sentenced in 2022 to more than 10 years in prison after the DEA said he used an ad for “roofing tar” to sell fentanyl to someone who died of an overdose afterward.

In response to questions about ongoing drug sales on Craigslist, Matthew Allen, special agent in charge of the DEA’s L.A. division, said the agency “works to educate social media platforms and e-commerce companies about how their platforms are being used for the sale and distribution of deadly and dangerous illicit drugs.”

Posts on Craigslist indicate some users are aware of drug slang being actively blocked on the site — while others are confused when their innocuous posts get inadvertently flagged as suspicious.

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In August 2022, a seller made a posting with the title “wetsuit listing keeps getting flagged. Why?” in a Craigslist help forum.

“It makes no sense to me that this is repeatedly flagged for removal,” the seller wrote before pasting the text of the ad, which included the following: “Roxy wetsuit toddler size 3T. Short legs. I’m reliable and pickup is easy.”

Another forum user responded: “Don’t say Roxy,” adding, “It’s a drug term. You used it multiple times in your ad, I bet that killed it.”

‘There’s a lot of drug sales’

Craigslist has been around nearly as long as the public internet. Launched in 1995 as a small email list of local events in the Bay Area, there were concerns about illicit activity almost from the beginning.

Jessa Lingel, author of An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of Craigslist,” said the site “has a long-standing reputation for facilitating different kinds of problematic behavior, partly because it got its start in San Francisco and it reflects the countercultural vibes of San Francisco in the 1990s.”

Today, Craigslist is one of the most-visited sites on the internet and generates more than $600 million in revenue a year, by some estimates. Much of that revenue comes from fees charged to post certain types of ads. Despite Craigslist’s outsized popularity, the site has a small staff of around 50 people, which could be part of why it has struggled to rein in drug sales, according to Lingel.

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Yet in contrast to former competitor Backpage — which clashed with law enforcement over ads for sex work — Lingel said that Craigslist developed a “pretty solid track record of working with law enforcement” to fight such things as fraud and human trafficking. Whatever the reason, despite occasional busts and efforts by prosecutors to crack down, drug dealers still use the platform.

In a study published in 2020, an international team of university researchers who surveyed more than 1,200 Americans who bought drugs online found Craigslist was the third-most popular site, after Instagram and Facebook.

In Los Angeles, Craigslist was first identified as “a major new marketplace for illicit fentanyl” more than five years ago by the journalist Sam Quinones.

Bodner, the former DEA official, said the agency investigated in some cases, but there’s only so much authorities can do given constraints on time, resources and law enforcement priorities in a metropolis such as L.A.

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Unless someone dies, he said, it’s not always worth the time and money involved in finding the ads and setting up an undercover buy for a small amount of drugs. Pushing site operators to crack down has been more effective, he said.

Around 2021, Bodner said, OfferUp — an app for selling used goods and clothes — became “the spot” for online drug sales.

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“We wrote them a letter saying here’s what’s going on on your platform: There’s a lot of drug sales,” Bodner said.

The listings Bodner’s investigators found featured a lot of the same slang that still peppered Craigslist ads this year: Roxy shorts, China sets and blue clothes with a 30-inch waist.

“We had a Zoom with OfferUp, and they kind of got on their people and tightened things up,” he said.

Federal agents checked the platform before and after OfferUp’s clampdown, Bodner said, and found that there were around 70% fewer ads featuring suspicious search terms.

Timothy Mackey, a professor at UC San Diego who studies the intersection of the illicit drug trade and social media, said the “relatively static and legacy system” on Craigslist could limit what data the company is able to collect, making it harder to block illicit activity than on an app such as OfferUp.

Until Times reporters contacted Craigslist last month, the site’s search function still suggested a range of drug terms, including “pain pills” and “M30s,” along with common slang such as “Roxy blue shorts” and “fine china white.”

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At the same time, other problematic keywords, such as “heroin” and “prostitute” were not suggested when the first few letters were typed.

Craigslist did not respond to questions about its predictive text and search functions, so it’s unclear exactly what recent changes the site has or hasn’t made — but many of those slang words for fentanyl have now stopped showing up as search suggestions.

Casey Fiesler, a tech ethics professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said regardless of why things changed, it’s a sign the site is capable of taking action.

“You can’t assume they know it’s a problem,” she said, “but you can say this is the kind of thing that a website should test for.”

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Boba Fett, blue fish, and fettuccine: How L.A. fentanyl sales boomed on Craigslist (2024)

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