ICE knows older Americans are targets for scams that have them smuggle drugs to other countries, but they’re failing to inform and protect them

ICE Agents
In this March 30, 2012 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents take a suspect into custody as part of a nationwide immigration sweep in Chula Vista, California.

  • ICE is aware elderly Americans are targets for scams that have them unknowingly transport drugs.
  • The organization is accused of not doing enough to protect citizens, The New York Times reported.
  • Americans have been imprisoned abroad after being caught transporting drugs.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is aware older Americans are targets for scams that fool them into smuggling drugs into other countries, but often fail to protect them, The New York Times reported.

ICE’s Operation Cocoon, a program created in 2013 to disrupt international drug trafficking rings, allows US officials to share information on potential drug smuggling with foreign agencies in an effort to prevent it.

ICE no longer calls the program Operation Cocoon, though it still exists under the name.

The program, however, has been criticized for not doing enough to keep Americans – especially older Americans -who unknowingly end up transporting these drugs out of foreign prisons.

According to 2016 written testimony from Alan Scott Brown, then-ICE Homeland Security Investigations acting assistant director for investigative programs, “the average age of the couriers was approximately 59, and the oldest of these couriers was 87.”

According to Brown’s testimony, “the oldest unwitting individual HSI encountered during one of our investigations was 97. However, HSI special agents identified him before he left the United States to participate in the endeavor and convinced him to abandon his travel plans because he was going to be another unwitting victim.”

Most scam victims were not that lucky.

It’s not clear how many elderly Americans have been tricked into being drug mules in scams but since 2013, 180 of 400 travelers stopped by law enforcement in foreign airports on suspicion of carrying drugs due to information shared by ICE were American citizens. About 70% of them were older than 60.

The Times reported that in some cases, US officials have allowed older Americans to caught by foreign investigators and then locked up, without ever contacting them to let them know they were tricked into smuggling drugs.

“If somebody from the US government showed up at my father’s house and spoke to my dad and said, ‘Hey, look, we have reason to believe you’re being scammed,’ there’s 100% no doubt he would have dropped it,” Vic Stemberger, whose father is imprisoned in Spain for unwittingly transporting cocaine after being scammed told the Times.

In 2016, ABC News also reported that a 74-year-old Florida man served an 18-month prison sentence in New Zealand after also being scammed into transporting meth.

“I lost a lot,” Ralph Soles said at the time. “When I came home, I didn’t have a home. I didn’t have a home to go home to.”

John Eisert, the assistant director of investigative programs for Homeland Security Investigations, told The Times that older Americans aren’t ICE’s target, but that it can sometimes be difficult to make elderly travelers aware of possible scams.

Eisert said ICE agents have been instructed to warn potential victims before they step onto a plane and unwittingly commit a crime.

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