Transnational and serious organised criminals are targeting the elderly in online scams to coerce the victims into working as drug mules to recoup their debts, according to a new trend identified by the AFP.
This new drug mule trend was exposed following a series of illicit drug detections by the Australian Border Force (ABF) at Sydney International Airport involving elderly and vulnerable passengers since the reopening of international borders.
Since October 2021, the AFP has arrested 18 alleged drug mules upon their arrival on board international flights into Australia. When the illicit drugs were found by ABF officers, some of the accused told the AFP they had been coerced into the role after they became victims of online financial scams.
Some alleged scam victims have claimed they were travelling under the direction of international criminal syndicates and were carrying illicit drugs hidden inside their luggage.
AFP Commander Kate Ferry said it was not surprising criminal syndicates were attempting to import drugs into Australia by any means possible.
“Criminal syndicates, by their very nature, exploit vulnerable communities and will undertake whatever tactics necessary to import drugs into our country,” she said.
“We have unfortunately seen instances where people have not only fallen victim to classic inheritance or investment scams and lost their money, but they are then offered false hope to regain their money, some unwittingly working as drug mules for the criminal syndicate.”
Commander Ferry said the victims of these online scams were often elderly and under significant financial hardship when they committed the crime.
“The victims of scams are already facing significant financial hardship along with any additional emotional trauma as a result of the online scam,” she said.
“These criminals prey on the vulnerable and, at times, naive and further victimise them by banking on the fact that they will do whatever it takes to recover their funds. The consequences for these victims can be severe, including lengthy terms of imprisonment.”
ABF Commander Susan Drennan said ABF officers are starting to see the border, particularly through Sydney International Airport, be targeted again by drug smugglers with increased illicit drug detections since the resumption of international travel.
“Our officers are highly skilled and have sophisticated technology at detecting illicit substances irrespective of how unassuming the person smuggling them may look,” Commander Drennan said.
“Organised crime syndicates will try to evade border controls by hiding illicit drugs in a variety of ways including manipulating people to do their bidding.
“We understand that this is an incredibly difficult situation for this vulnerable community who have been brought into this situation but we do need to ensure the Australian community is kept safe from the importation of dangerous drugs. I urge those in the community that are approached by criminal groups to seek the help of authorities, rather than resort to criminal activity themselves.”
Commander Drennan urged the community if you see or are a part of something that doesn’t feel right, make it your business to report it. This can be flagged anonymously by contacting the ABF’s Border Watch Program.
Commander Ferry said the AFP remained one step ahead of these transnational and serious organised crime syndicates, warning any suspicious behaviour would be investigated.
“Our message to these organised criminal syndicates is clear – we are aware of your methodologies in your attempts to bring harmful, illicit substances to our country – and they will not work.”
“We are one step ahead and we continue to work around the clock to identify and dismantle your illicit operations,” she said.
Commander Ferry urged any Australians dealing with financial scams to contact law enforcement and seek assistance.
“We also urge all members of the community, including the elderly, to be aware of online scams and tactics used by organised crime to coerce them into providing funds and personal information, or undertake international travel.”