Duped by Drugs: Seniors Fooled into Being “Mules” for Drug Dealers— What to Look Out For

Elderly drug mule

It is hard to imagine the horror of a family member when a beloved elder, who has been leading a perfectly normal life, is suddenly sentenced to six years in prison for being a drug mule and participating in drug trafficking across international lines. Such a senior may even be serving this time in another country, unprotected by United States laws and authorities. This very situation was experienced by the children and loved ones of some 30 to 50 older Americans fooled by drug dealers into unwittingly smuggling drugs for unscrupulous scammers.

Is it a Big Problem?

How big a problem is it? How at risk are seniors for these kinds of consequential scams? According to an ARRP report, 145 individuals, most of them seniors, have been arrested for smuggling drugs without knowing they were doing so. A USA Today report cites the Department of Homeland Security as the source of such figures as 30-50 America and currently serving time for such offenses, and notes that the arrests have all taken place within the last year and a half.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security say the fraud network seeking to use seniors in such a despicable way is broad. In fact, an undercover operation known as Operation Cocoon, seeks to intercept seniors before they leave on such fool’s errands and save them from the consequences of the scams. Even the U.S. Senate has become involved, holding a special hearing and urging the Secretary of State to intervene on behalf of such incarcerated seniors.

If it happens to even one senior, that is certainly one senior too many. Also, because many of these communications take place anonymously and online, the true culprits are difficult to find, while the senior pays the price. In order to protect seniors from such heinous, horrible schemes, it is important for them to watch out for the following signs. They may never become victims of these and other scams, but forewarned is forearmed against such disasters.

Beware of Distant Online Relationships

The Internet is one of the most fantastic, incredible creations of the modern day, allowing diverse people to communicate and share information at the push of a button. Yet it is also home to some of the most calculating scammers and criminals, who will often use the Internet to fool unsuspecting victims. Seniors are often unfamiliar with the signs of “catfishing” (a person portraying himself or herself as someone else online by creating a false persona, especially on a dating website). Seniors may believe that a person exists who does not, or that the person is as wonderful as he or she seems. The vulnerability of lonely and isolated seniors must also be taken into account when they enter into online relationships.

Striking up an online romantic relationship can be a wonderful part of living in the modern day, but profiles or people from other countries or even distant parts of the United States should be considered possible scams. It is safer, in the online world, to be wary of people who solicit communication and relationships from people far away from them. It should also be noted that most online relationships eventually seek to culminate in a face-to-face meeting. On the surface, this is not strange or suspect. Yet if a senior in one’s care is asked to travel somewhere far, and especially if the other person will pay to cover travel costs, it is time to step in and challenge the person’s intentions.

If It Seems Strange, Investigate

International or transnational requests for communication or a relationship are odd. Travel on that scale is also odd; most people would not be willing to fly to Spain or India on a whim for just anyone, and paying for it is no small matter. If someone is willing to pay for a flight across the country or across the world, it must be wondered: what does that person expect to gain from the trip?

Seniors caught up in such schemes were also asked to pick up packages from various cities, and were expected to pick up several connecting flights through various countries in order to confuse authorities. They were even told, in some cases, to ignore or mistrust law enforcement, further exacerbating the problem. Picking up cargo and dropping it off somewhere else is how these schemes were discovered, largely on international soil, which can result in serious jail time. A senior is not a courier service, and if documents, packages, or suitcases need to be mailed, the Internet has many excellent resources available to do so. Seniors do not have to go pick up a strange package with which to travel, even for someone who claims to care about them.

Transactions that Appear Uneven

If a senior in one’s care is suddenly spending money on or giving gifts to someone far away whom they have not met in person, they could be unwittingly helping to fund criminal operations. Feigning financial trouble, scammers and criminals will solicit small amounts of money first, then larger amounts in order to gauge the trust of a senior over time. No one should send money to someone over the Internet unless the person or organization is known and trusted. Caregivers and family members should reinforce with seniors that they should never share their bank account or credit card information with someone online that they do not know.

Some scammers and catfishes are clever; they will send “gifts” back, or will allow small loans or monetary gifts in order to foster trust between them and a senior they wish to take advantage of. If they do reciprocate, it will usually be on a considerably smaller scale and rate than the gifts or money sent to them. It is important for seniors to not take one small “pro” in a group of many “cons.” as a gesture of genuine goodwill on the part of the other person. Eventually, the person may use the trust built up through such small gestures to attempt to get the senior to transport drugs.

Prizes or Free Gifts

Scammers have used the promise of prizes or free gifts for decades. This is especially prolific on the Internet, where ads can be disguised as important announcements and viruses can be hidden in apparently benign files. Promising a free trip or a prize in exchange for carrying a package across international lines is not a normal way to travel or experience life abroad, and no reputable company would pay thousands of dollars just to move a suitcase or envelope. Such requests or “offers” may be related to drug trafficking and could get a senior into very hot water.

Logic should always prevail. No legitimate business needs individual people to physically transport goods. The world has now a vast network of delivery services from land to land and over air and seas.

Whether an individual soliciting a relationship with a senior asks it, or whether an Internet site offers a prize or exotic travel in return for transporting packages, suitcases, or other goods or documents, antennae should immediately go up. If such items cannot be transported via the usual, accepted means, they most likely should not be transported at all and especially not by a trusting and innocent senior.

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Ambrose, Eileen. (February 11, 2016). Seniors Tricked Into Being Drug Mules. AARP.com. Available at http://blog.aarp.org/2016/02/11/seniors-tricked-into-being-drug-mules/. Retrieved June 27, 2016.

Corrigan, Jack. (February 10, 2016). DHS: Scammers turned unwitting seniors into drug mules. USA Today. Available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/02/10/dhs-scammers-turned-unwitting-seniors-into-drug-mules/80199862/. Retrieved June 27, 2016.

Nixon, Ron. (February 10, 2016). Drug Traffickers Turn to New Type of Courier: Seniors. The New York Times. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/11/us/politics/drug-traffickers-turn-to-new-type-of-courier-seniors.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FElderly&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=69&pgtype=collection. Retrieved June 27, 2016.

Nixon, Ron. (March 7, 2016). Senators Seek Help for Older Americans Tricked Into Smuggling Drugs. The New York Times. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/08/us/politics/senators-seek-help-for-older-americans-tricked-into-smuggling-drugs.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FElderly&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=53&pgtype=collection. Retrieved June 27, 2016.

Sands, Geneva. (February 10, 2016). The Elderly Being Conned Into Trafficking Drugs. ABCNews.com. Available at http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/elderly-conned-trafficking-drugs/story?id=36838158. Retrieved June 27, 2016.