In February 2016, Alan Scott Brown, Acting Assistant Director for Investigative Programs Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), testified before the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging. He detailed several types of scams aimed at seniors, including an alarming scheme in which criminals from other countries use older people as drug couriers.
Mr. Brown's testimony included statistics about the average age of these unsuspecting drug couriers (59), the ways drug smugglers recruit older people to carry packets for them and the types of drugs recovered (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy).
Dire Consequences for Drug Couriers
Some senior travelers have been caught carrying illegal drugs and are now serving jail time in foreign countries. Joseph Martin, age 77, is in a Spanish jail, serving a six year sentence. His son says that Martin met a woman online and sent her money. The woman then asked Martin to fly to South America, collect some legal papers for her and take those papers to London. Unbeknownst to Martin, the packet contained cocaine. When Martin arrived in a Spanish airport on his way to the UK, he was arrested.
According to ICE, at least 144 couriers have been recruited by transnational criminal organizations. ICE believes about 30 people are in overseas jails because they were caught smuggling drugs they did not know they were carrying.
The problem has become so widespread that ICE issued a warning to older travelers in February 2016.
How the Drug Courier Scam Works
Typically, someone from a criminal organization befriends an older person, often online or by telephone. The scammer may offer a business opportunity, romance, friendship or even a contest prize.
For example, in October 2015, an Australian couple won a trip to Canada in an online contest. The prize included airfare, a hotel stay and new luggage. The couple discussed their concerns about the luggage with officials when they returned to Australia. Customs officers found methamphetamine in the suitcases. After an investigation, police arrested eight Canadians.
Once a relationship has been established, the scammer convinces the targeted person to travel to another country, using tickets the scammer has paid for. Then, the scammer or an associate asks the traveler to carry something for them. Items travelers have been asked to carry include chocolates, shoes, soap and picture frames. Drugs are hidden in the items.
If caught, the traveler can be arrested and imprisoned for drug trafficking. In some countries, being an unwitting dupe is not a defense against drug smuggling charges. Some countries, such as Indonesia, even impose the death penalty for drug smuggling.
Who Is at Risk?
Scammers target older people for several reasons. Seniors may be less aware of the wide array of online scams that exist today. Older people may be lonely or looking for romance. Still others can be enticed by the offer of free travel or the prospect of a good business opportunity.
Sometimes, scammers re-target people they have ripped off in other ways, such as the Nigerian email scam.
Scammers often maintain a relationship with their targets for a very long time, sometimes years, before setting up the drug courier trip. It can be difficult to talk the targeted person out of taking the trip because the scammer seems so trustworthy.
What Is Being Done to Stop the Drug Courier Scam?
ICE and customs officers in other countries are working hard to spread the word about the drug courier scam. Law enforcement officers conduct investigations and do their best to arrest the scammers, but, since many of these cases cross international borders, it can be difficult to find and arrest the true criminals.
Customs officers are also trying to identify at-risk seniors and stop them at the airport, but not all of these efforts are successful.
There have been cases where the traveler refused to believe the officers and got on a flight anyway, only to be arrested for drug smuggling later.
How Can I Avoid Becoming a Drug Courier?
The old saying, "If something looks too good to be true, it is," should be your guide. Accepting free travel from someone you do not know or from a company you can't investigate is never a good idea.
More importantly, never agree to carry items for someone you do not know, especially across international borders. If you are given something at the airport, ask a customs officer to check it for you.