Organized Crime

CBSA is Warning Canada’s Seniors

The aging population is a highly vulnerable target for drug traffic organizations (DTOs). Seniors are active, they love to travel, and many are looking for companionship. Increasingly, they are carrying out these activities online and are unwittingly becoming prime targets for drug dealers wishing to smuggle illicit narcotics into the country. Many of these DTOs operate out of West Africa, luring seniors through the internet and social media.

According to Statistics Canada, not only is the senior population estimated to increase by 23-25% by 2036, it is also the fastest-growing demographic of online users. The unfortunate reality is that, on the whole, this group is typically fairly trusting and not extremely tech-savvy; and criminal elements quickly recognized this combination as an opportunity for recruiting unsuspecting couriers.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has been sounding the alarm on this serious problem, and working hard to prevent seniors from being lured into becoming drug mules.

Drug Trafficking Organizations
Criminal groups are constantly looking for ways to stay one step ahead of law enforcement agencies – trying to avoid detection at all costs. Fortunately, this is proving more difficult every year, as CBSA and its Canadian and international law enforcement partners continually work to enhance intelligence and targeting capabilities in order to identify, examine, and interdict illicit narcotics shipments, thereby disrupting and dismantling trans-national organized drug trafficking organizations.

For drug traffickers seeking to avoid suspicion when clearing border customs, the ageing population provides a significant opportunity. They assume, for example, that a 75-year-old individual travelling on vacation or a business trip may be less likely to attract attention from customs officials – so they spend time devising sometimes elaborate scenarios to trick seniors into becoming an unsuspecting courier with the hope that the seemingly “unassuming” senior will avoid detailed inspection. And it has been working.

In one example (slightly altered for privacy), a 79-year-old Canadian was advised of a financial windfall. Travel to Brazil was arranged so he could sign legal paperwork to receive his $3.5 million dollars. After signing the papers, he was told to deliver a suitcase to someone in Canada to complete the transfer process. Upon his arrival in Canada, the suitcase was examined by the CBSA, and he was arrested after officers found 19.2 kg of cocaine concealed in the lining of the suitcase.

Sniffer dogs check bags along the carousel. (Photo CBSA)

Law enforcement agencies quickly caught on to this new tactic. and started making seizures and arrests. The trend involving seniors being recruited as international narcotics couriers through e-mail scams was first identified through international partner agency enforcement in 2013. The United States Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) implemented Operation Cocoon after noticing that numerous U.S. seniors, who were travelling to drug-source countries, were then being arrested with narcotics by border agents in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. CBSA’s Targeting and Intelligence Programs, through on-going analysis, identified similar trends tied to travel to or through Canada.

How these Scams Operate
These foreign drug trafficking organizations prey on victims with promises of romance, large sums of money or business opportunities with travel and expenses paid. The victims are predominantly individuals who are not well versed with computers and the Internet. This is one of the main reasons why the senior demographic appears to be exploited heavily by these groups. Criminals use phishing email messages, websites, mail and phone calls to trick unsuspecting senior citizens into unwittingly transporting illegal narcotics. Some known scams include International Monetary Fund scams, United Nations scams, inheritance scams, foreign beneficiary scams, and romance scams.

The scams and subsequent recruiting of unwitting seniors tend to follow a standard methodology:

  • The criminal organizations begin by contacting seniors, usually online, and offering various financial opportunities, or romantic relationships.
  • They invest a lot of time developing close relationships with them through frequent communication.
  • At some point, the organization will require the victim to travel to destinations such as Africa, South America or Asia in order to receive the promised rewards.
  • During these trips, the victims may be asked to take seemingly harmless items along with them to contacts in another country or to bring these items back home to Canada.
  • Upon arrival and inspection, these items are found to contain drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, resulting in detention and arrest by local authorities.

Seized items confiscated by CBSA.

The CBSA has interdicted numerous seniors caught up in these scams. But they have also, on a few occasions, been able to intercept individuals in advance of travel, to warn them of the scam and the risks they face. Sometimes family members have warned the CBSA about a senior loved-one getting caught in a scam and travelling overseas. In other cases a border service officer may notice that a senior traveller has booked a flight to South America, Africa or Asia through a travel agency known to have links to criminal groups, in which case officers will stop and warn them at the airport before he/she leaves the country.

“The criminal groups will ask the unsuspecting seniors to bring gifts or legal documents for contacts waiting at their next destination. Drugs will be concealed in these items, for example, in envelopes, clothing, chocolates, candies, canned goods, boxes of tea, picture frames or toiletries, in an effort to avoid detection by local law enforcement, putting Canadian seniors at risk of arrest,” explains CBSA’s Paul Porrior, Director General of the National Border Operations Centre.

The full extent of the problem is not obvious, as these situations generally begin with e-mail phishing scams which are very common and often unreported because, for one, the victims are often embarrassed by the situations. Since 2016, the CBSA has intercepted 17 such cases, 7 of these involving Canadians. Overseas, at least another 12 cases involving Canadians are known.

Protecting Canadians
CBSA’s border services officers are trained in examination, intelligence and investigative techniques and stay current on global trends. “As smugglers are increasingly using more sophisticated concealment methods, the CBSA employs a number of tools to stop the flow of illegal and prohibited materials into Canada,” notes Porrior. “Along with their training, expertise and knowledge, our officers rely on contraband detection tools such as Gamma-Ray technology, X-ray machines, Detector Dogs and others when detecting contraband and prohibited or restricted goods,” he explains.

The CBSA launched a public awareness campaign in February to warn Canadians that seniors are being exploited by international drug smuggling organizations. The campaign explains how these organizations are targeting seniors to act as unwitting drug couriers through the use of romance scams, inheritance scams and offering fake business opportunities.

What to do
If you are a victim, or believe an elderly loved one is been targeted by one of these criminal organizations, report the incident to your local law enforcement and contact the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre toll free at 1-888-495-8501. Or contact the Canada Border Watch Tip Line: 1-888-502-9060 (Monday to Friday, 9am – 9pm EST).