ABF shines light on ‘catfish’ deception to import illicit drugs

On Thursday 25 April 2024, ABF officers in Perth examined an air cargo consignment from India, which consisted of 100 boxes split over six pallets, and was described as ‘adhesive tape’.

During the examination, officers located and removed white powder which was concealed within 159 rolls of tape.

The powder returned a presumptive positive result for pseudoephedrine – a border-controlled drug, which is a precursor for the manufacture of methamphetamine.

In total, officers located and seized 10kg of pseudoephedrine, which has an estimated potential street value of more than $400,000.

ABF investigators identified that the consignment was a ‘piggy back’ import.

A piggy back occurs when an unscrupulous entity uses the identifying details of a legitimate entity for a consignment without their knowledge.

The consignment was re-directed from an address in the south-west town of Collie in WA destined for a storage facility in Victoria.

On Tuesday 7 May 2024, ABF investigators conducted a managed delivery to the West Melbourne storage facility, where a 62-year-old man was arrested.

ABF investigators were told the man, who was looking for companionship, befriended a Cambodian woman online several months ago.

He was then introduced via email to the woman’s ‘aunt’ and over time, he was convinced to receive stationary supplies the aunt claimed she wanted to sell in Australia.

The man agreed to be the Australian contact for an import of stationary supplies, and rented a unit at a storage facility to receive and store the goods.

The collection of the boxes from the storage unit was coordinated by the aunt, and the man was provided funds to pay the couriers.

The man recalled most of the consignments were labelled sticky tape, however, believed on some occasions it was labelled as jewellery in the form of Indian bead bracelets.

Investigators believe the man may have been used as a ‘catcher,’ with no awareness of his role in this criminal enterprise, and he has been released pending further inquiries.

ABF Acting Superintendent Regional Investigations Ben Michalke said the man had never engaged in a video call with either the Cambodian woman or her aunt, with his only contact being through emails, which should be a significant red flag. 

“This catfish-style operation is just one of the sophisticated methods criminals use to try to illegally import dangerous precursor drugs into the country,” A/Supt Michalke said.

“This serves as a cautionary tale for those who are engaging with people they meet online – you need to be alert and sceptical to these kinds of requests as you never know what illegal and dangerous activity you are getting yourself into.

“There are serious consequences for those convicted of importing border-controlled precursors and other illicit substances including prison time.

“And there’s also potential criminal elements – whether onshore or offshore – who may blame the catcher when it’s detected by ABF or our law enforcement partners, leading to threats of or actual violence, intimidation and extortion.

“This amount of pseudoephedrine could make about 7kg of methamphetamine – and with an estimated potential street value of $6.5 million – criminal groups are unlikely to just walk away.”

A/Supt Michalke urged members of the community to check in on vulnerable relatives and friends to ensure they don’t fall victim to online criminals.

“In addition to tragic personal implications of a deception like this, the illicit drugs being imported or manufactured have a devastating impact on individuals and communities,” A/Supt Michalke said.

“The ABF, alongside our partner agencies both here and abroad, will continue to target organised criminal groups and individuals who produce, supply and distribute dangerous drugs.”

Members of the community are encouraged to report suspicious border-related activity through Border Watch at abf.gov.au/borderwatch. By reporting suspicious activities, you help protect Australia’s border and the community. Reports can be made anonymously.

/Public Release. View in full here.