Over 100 senior citizens have been deceived into becoming unwilling couriers of nearly 500 kilograms of drugs as part of a scheme to smuggle drugs into other countries, federal officials said.
The Department of Homeland Security issued a warning Wednesday outlining the tactics and targets of this scheme, which they believe has put 30 senior citizens in jail overseas.
Officials say the average age of a targeted individual is 59.
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"Those who target vulnerable populations, to include our elderly, are among the worst kinds of criminals," said ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña. "Heart breaking does not begin to describe some of these case details. It is the job of law enforcement to bring these perpetrators to justice, but it is all of our jobs to teach our own loved ones to be vigilant against these kinds of schemes."
Authorities say they have worked with foreign officials to track down and intercept the 144 couriers. They have also arrested 15 other individuals who worked as facilitators for the organization conducting this scheme.
This unnamed organization is said to offer senior citizens business opportunities abroad, convincing them to travel to meet with business partners and attorneys on all-expenses paid trips. This is done through social media, "cyber begging" -- or begging for money online, and telemarketing fraud, officials said.
Senior citizen targets are then asked to take items like chocolates, picture frames, tea, canned goods, soap or wooden hangers and other seemingly harmless items, according to investigators, that contain drugs.
They are then caught with the drugs and arrested by authorities in countries like Australia and New Zealand, where penalties for drug charges are severe.
Officials say the perpetrators target older individuals because of their lack of Internet savvy to recognize the scam. They say that even warnings like this one, to specific people, have failed due to elderly's built trust with the organization and lack of trust in law enforcement.