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Drug traffickers exploit innocent gig-work couriers

Airtasker, which has more than 1.5 million users across the country, allows Australians to post requests for a range of jobs including cleaning, assembling furniture and transporting goods.

Travel restrictions imposed during the global pandemic have driven traffickers to increasingly use courier services to move illicit drugs around the country and within cities, according to intelligence collected by the AFP.

Couriers employed to collect and transport the drugs usually have no idea what is in the packages. Online accounts are often created by criminals using fraudulent or stolen identification, allowing them to keep their identities anonymous.

Home-grown online courier companies Airtasker and Zoom2U have co-operated with the police investigations and were integral to busting the alleged criminal networks.

Detective Acting Superintendent Craig Bellis, the AFP’s national co-ordinator for drug strategy, said organised crime syndicates were using innocent courier companies – including Airtasker, Zoom2U and Australia Post – “to receive, store and forward drug importations and other stolen goods”.

“Criminals will do whatever they can, and use whoever they can, to stay anonymous and arm’s length from the illegal activities,” he said.

Earlier this year, a package containing almost 10 kilograms of MDMA was detected at the border by Australian Border Force officers. Police will allege an Airtasker courier was paid to collect the package from an Australia Post parcel centre and store it in a short-term rental locker, before a different Airtasker courier was instructed to collect the parcel and leave it behind a letterbox at a Melbourne residence.

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The alleged importers used the couriers in an attempt to remain anonymous, and police also allege they had no connection to the residential property where the package was delivered. Two people were later identified and have been charged with importing the drugs.

In February 2019, a drug syndicate allegedly used an online courier from the platform Zoom2U as part of an attempt to move 55 kilograms of cocaine concealed within industrial machinery imported in Sydney. Three men were later arrested and are currently before the courts awaiting sentencing.

“These arrests show that no matter how criminals try to conceal and move their drugs, we are one step ahead – we will outsmart them,” Acting Superintendent Bellis said.

He said the AFP was also aware of criminal groups advertising “working from home” opportunities and answering “work wanted” ads in online marketplaces to get people to move other illicit commodities.

“We are aware of some incidents where offenders have purchased goods online using stolen credit card details and have organised to have the goods sent to innocent people, who repackage the items and deliver them to another address,” Acting Superintendent Bellis said.

“We know the majority of people who work as couriers for these service platforms or are seeking freelance work are honest and law-abiding. But organised crime groups are unscrupulous and will exploit and prey on vulnerable people.”

Tim Fung, chief executive and co-founder of Airtasker, said his company took reports of illegal goods being moved under the platform “very seriously”.

“Regarding this case, our Airtasker support team is working directly with the Australian Federal Police to assist in their investigation,” he said.

A Zoom2U spokesman said the company worked with state and federal police, as well as private investigators, to detect and catch people using the service for illegal acts.

“We consider this both the morally correct thing to do, and a necessary step to protect the integrity of the platform for the vast majority of our users who are behaving lawfully,” the spokesman said.

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