Japanese drug smugglers use online shoppers as mules
Japanese police bust smugglers who tricked women buying handbags into passing on shipments of marijuana they were mailed
Julian Ryall in Tokyo
Police in Japan have cracked a drug-smuggling ring that took advantage of the nation's honesty and its fondness for online shopping.
The scam turned women shopping for handbags and other items into unwitting accomplices, who mailed parcels of marijuana around the country.
Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department has arrested three men suspected of smuggling a package containing 1kg of marijuana into Japan by air.
The shipment had a street value of about five million yen (HK$382,000), sources told the Yomiuri newspaper.
But it is the cunning of the smugglers that has caught the attention of the authorities here.
The parcel was designed to look identical to the thousands of packages containing items purchased over the internet that arrive in Japan from the United States every day.
The smugglers hacked an online shopping site and identified women ordering items online.
Before their packages arrived, however, the smugglers sent the female buyers a message to say there had been a mistake and that the wrong product had been dispatched.
The message asked the recipient not to open the parcel but to pass it on to another address, where the cost of the postage would be covered.
The smuggler's then dropped the package of drugs at the shoppers' home addresses.
The scheme was relatively simple and reduced the likelihood of the smugglers being caught, as the women later received the items they had ordered, but it unravelled in November when customs officers reported a suspicious package to the police.
After tracking the parcel to its supposed destination, police interviewed the young woman residing at the address.
The woman told investigators that she had purchased a handbag on the online shopping site but sent the package on to another address after receiving an e-mail to apologise for an error in the item dispatched.
The woman had kept the e-mail, enabling police to go to the apartment in Tokyo where the package had been sent.
Police recovered the drugs, which were in a cylindrical steel container that was firmly sealed, and arrested three men.
After further investigation, the authorities identified at least four other women who had purchased items from the same online site and similarly been asked to pass packages on.
Police believe those parcels also contained drugs from the US.
Imports of illegal drugs are becoming a serious problem for the Japanese police.
The authorities at Narita International Airport seized a record 270kg of drugs last year, the largest amount since the airport opened in 1978 and a 1.6-fold increase on the previous year.
Customs officials said they had noticed a surge in smuggling from India, with 12 of the 82 cases on flights originating in India. Nine people were arrested after arriving with drugs in their luggage from China, with five from Hong Kong. The narcotics seized at the airport had an estimated street value of 18.8 billion yen.