Washington, DC – U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) today joined his colleagues on the Senate Aging Committee to shed light on a previously undisclosed scam in which seniors are sent fully-paid plane tickets under false pretenses, only to be used as unwitting drug smugglers for transnational criminal organizations. According to a joint U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) investigation dubbed “Operation Cocoon,” the scam has led to foreign governments apprehending 145 victims, including 44 who remain incarcerated in foreign jails. The average age of these victims is 59 years.
“I would like to see the U.S. government do more to ensure that these countries are aware that they are arresting victims of a scam, and – when possible – work to get these seniors out of prison,” said Flake. “We’ve seen seniors in Arizona and from across the nation targeted in scams before, but to have the situation escalate to point where victims are being imprisoned overseas is especially troubling. It’s important that Congress, law enforcement, and even friends and family take steps to raise awareness so that seniors are less likely to be victimized by this particularly pernicious scheme.”
During the hearing, the committee heard the testimony of Green Valley, Ariz. resident Daniel Seibert, a victim of the scheme. Seibert, 79, testified that scammers contacted him by email promising to fly him to Dubai in order to collect unclaimed funds left by relatives in overseas accounts. The scammers then sent Seibert fully-paid plane tickets that would have taken him to the U.K., then Dubai, and then to Japan. ICE believes he would have been given a package containing narcotics at some point along this journey. Seibert traveled to Atlanta to board the flight, but was fortunately intercepted by ICE agents before he could leave the United States.
Background: According to information shared by ICE and CBP with the Senate Aging Committee, criminal organizations are using seniors in an international drug-smuggling scheme. The criminals draw in their victims by first entangling them in a predicate scam, such as a lottery scam, an inheritance scam, or a romance scam. Once the senior is hooked, the criminal will then book an international flight in the senior’s name for a reason tailored to that particular scam (ex: lottery scam victim would be told that they need to collect their winnings). Once the senior arrives at his or her destination, they are booked on a flight to a third country and the scammer provides an itinerary to the victim. Along the way, the senior is told that for some reason it is important to carry a package or an extra suitcase, which unbeknownst to them, is filled with drugs.
According to ICE and CBP:
· Operation Cocoon has intercepted 145 couriers carrying a total of 272 kilograms of methamphetamine, 209 kilograms of cocaine, 4 kilograms of ecstasy, and 11 kilograms of heroin (all believed to be related to transnational criminal organizations)
· The average age of the victims apprehended overseas was 59, and the oldest was 87
· ICE estimates that 145 couriers have been arrested by foreign governments as a result of this scam and 44 of them remain incarcerated overseas
· The countries in which most individuals are still imprisoned operate under a strict liability law that charges victims because they were found carrying drugs into the country, regardless of whether they know they were doing so
· Foreign authorities in Hong Kong, China, Argentina and Spain are working to track down the masterminds behind the scam and have arrested 15 subjects affiliated with criminal organizations as a result of Operation Cocoon
Last Congress, the Aging Committee conducted an investigation on the Jamaican lottery scam, which shares similar tactics as Operation Cocoon. The investigation and along with the help of other agencies lead to the Jamaican government passing “new laws allowing extradition of the scammers to the United States for trial, and several arrests have been made in connection with this scam.”