Linda Carnahan said she saw the warning signs. Her 17-year-old son began acting strangely and was becoming increasingly irritable. So she started monitoring who he was communicating with online.
The Phoenix mother says she soon discovered a virtual illicit drug store when she checked her son's MySpace page, uncovering entry after entry of Purple Pokeballs and White Macintosh Thizzles for sale.
"I didn't know what they were so I Googled it," said Carnahan. "It came up 'ecstasy.'"
Carnahan tipped off local police who quickly began a sting operation that netted not just one, but 10 drug dealers who were allegedly peddling ecstasy online. Police say, between them, they had a combined clientele of 500 high school and college age kids.
"We bought over 200 tablets [of ecstasy] in about three or four days," said Lt. Steve Bailey of the Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff's office.
Bailey says undercover officers could easily have bought more drugs, but they wanted to get the information out to parents right away.
Police describe ecstasy as part of the methamphetamine family that is popular with teenagers because it makes them feel euphoric. It's often shared at rave parties. Lt. Bailey says at $15 a pop, it's a dangerous, cheap and easy high.
"It will raise their core temperature above 100 degrees, and these kids just don't understand what they're taking," he said. "The sellers sometimes don't even know what they're selling these kids."
This was not an isolated case found only in Phoenix. Police departments across the country are increasingly assigning officers to patrol social networking sites. They hunt for signs of drug dealing and other criminal activities.
"MySpace and the Internet are a reflection of the real world," said Larry Magid, co-director of Connectsafely.com, a Web site aimed at educating parents and teens about online safety. "So if something happens in a town, if it happens in the world, it's likely to happen in cyberspace."
Internet watchdog groups say police face an uphill battle trying to catch people using social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook for illegal behavior.
Parents Must Stay Vigilant Online
"Ironically, the very thing designed to protect you on a social network can also encourage criminality," said Magid. "Social networking allows for privacy, so you can have a Web site that only friends can access, which means that the police won't necessarily see it."
He says parents need to be vigilant and pay close attention to what their kids are doing online.
"If you're concerned about MySpace, that's one of the safer social networking sites. There are plenty [of Web sites] out there that most people have never heard of that actually have no sheriff in town," he said. "At least MySpace has a security department and people that are trying to keep it clean."
MySpace won't comment on the ongoing case in Phoenix. But the company says it has contacted law enforcement officials there to offer assistance. MySpace also says that it has a full-time safety and security team, part of which is dedicated to law enforcement.
Still, Magid says police can't be everywhere. "With millions and millions of pages out there, it's like finding a needle in a haystack."
The Maricopa County Sheriff's office arrested 10 alleged dealers who are facing drug charges. Officers stress they couldn't have done it without the tip from Linda Carnahan.
Carnahan says her son is now in drug rehab and angry that she stepped in. But she says she wouldn't hesitate to do it again.
"That's my only child and I love him," she said. "I'm not going to let some 20-year-old have my son overdose."