Drug smugglers exploit Web shoppers

JAPAN - Police are investigating cases involving smugglers who disguise parcels loaded with marijuana as ordinary packages containing mail-order shopping products from the United States, send them to online shopping mall customers in Japan, then ask them to transfer the packages to accomplices in Japan, sources said.

[[{"fid":"140543","view_mode":"default","type":"media","attributes":{"height":297,"width":267,"border":"0","style":"float: right;","class":"media-element file-default"},"link_text":null}]]According to investigative sources, after shipping the packages, the smugglers e-mail people who placed orders on an online shopping site to inform them that the wrong product had been shipped. The smugglers then asked the shoppers to send the packages to another place in Japan and paid for the transfer fees.

The Metropolitan Police Department suspects a smuggling group attempted to elude police by using third parties who were unaware of the smuggling.

The MPD recently arrested three members of the smuggling group in their 20s on suspicion of violating the Cannabis Control Law. Investigators are trying to identify the person who shipped marijuana from the United States. According to the sources, the three men are suspected of having smuggled a package containing about 1 kilogram of marijuana, worth about ¥5 million (S$1 million) at street value, from the United States by air in November.

After the MPD was alerted by the Tokyo Customhouse about a suspicious package, investigators tracked it down and found that a Tokyo woman in her 20s had received it. The investigators then visited her and asked her about the package. She told them she sent it to a different address without opening it, according to the sources.

The woman purchased a bag on the online shopping site, where companies and individual sellers can sell products such as foreign brand items. Before the item she ordered arrived, she received an e-mail, saying: "We wrongly shipped you a product that was ordered by a different customer. Please send it to [a designated] address and we'll pay for the transfer fees." The woman responded to the request.

The MPD then investigated an apartment in Tokyo, to which the package was addressed, and found a man who received the package, leading to the man's arrest and the seizure of the package. Two other men were also arrested. The marijuana was in a tightly sealed cylindrical steel container that could not be opened by hand alone, the sources said.

After probing the order records of an online shopping site, the investigators found that four other women who bought products from the same seller after last summer received similar requests through e-mails and transferred the packages. The packages had such labels as "training device," but the MPD suspects those packages also contained marijuana and the same smuggling group was involved.

After transferring the packages, the women actually received the products they ordered and were paid the transfer fees. They thus had no reason to harbour suspicion, the sources said.

In many past smuggling cases, customs officers first found drugs and marijuana, after which investigators arrested people in Japan who received the smuggled items.

The MPD believes the smuggling group targeted users of the online shopping site and exchanged e-mails with them to check whether police were tracking them down after shipping drugs to the shoppers.