9 Investigates: How gang members could be using emojis

How gang members could be using emojis

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If you use emojis in your text messages and social media posts, you might want to be careful how you use them.

Channel 9 anchor Stephanie Maxwell learned that some of them have a secret meaning that parents might not know about, even those who are trying to keep an eye on their children and how they're communicating.

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Ruth Foston said it's a habit for her and her husband to spot-check the activity on their daughters' cellphones.

"I'm like, ‘Give me your phone and put your password in. Let me see,’" she said. “And I'll just check to see who they're texting and things like that."

Foston admitted that she doesn't pay much attention to the emojis, small images often used in text messages and social media posts.

"I'll see a string of pictures, and I'm like, 'I don't know what that means,'" she told Channel 9.

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Donna Price said that's exactly what gang members want to hear.

Price was part of the Street Safe Task Force established by former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue and worked closely with gang prevention coordinators. Price said gangs are using what look like innocent emojis in social media posts as hidden messages to recruit, communicate with one another and threaten rivals.

"There are about 1,200 emojis out there, and those emojis can each mean four different meanings," Price said.

Maxwell asked Foston what she thinks the gas pump emoji means.

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"They need gas,” Foston answered. “They're at an old-school gas station and they're in the middle of nowhere."

Not always. Some use that emoji as a symbol for gang. They may add the emoji "A" and emoji "NG” to erase any doubt.

Or they'll use a cluster of emojis, like the one below. It means "Do you have any weed?"

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The emoji combo of a man running and scissors is a threat to cut or stab someone.

“This is like taking it to the next level,” Foston said. “That's scary.”

Detective Al Smith of the Violent Crimes and Gang Unit in Burlington told Channel 9 that the emoji communication code started with gangs in the western and northern parts of the country.

“They like to share everything. It's a common trend with gangs,” Smith said.

Maxwell looked at the Twitter feed of a well-known Chicago gang member and found the gas pump emojis and others with multiple meanings, along with plenty of threats.

That gang member was killed three years ago.

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“The trend is, by the time we find out about it, they have either used it or have moved on to something else,” said Smith.

That's where things can get complicated. The alternative meanings of the emojis change often, because gangs know that investigators are on to them. Different gangs use the emojis in different ways, so it can be tough for police, and parents, to break the code, which is why Price said parents have to make the effort to know what the pictures mean.

“It's like music and technology,” said Price. “You have to stay up on it all the time.”

“I have to tell them (my children) all the time, 'It's not necessarily you,'” Foston told Channel 9. “'It's the people around you. And I don't know everybody that you communicate with or talk to.'”

Websites like emoji dictionary can be helpful to translate emojis, but remember, the meaning can change often.