In what may be one of the largest electronics smuggling operations in recent years, it seems that a handful of employees with the Russian airline Aeroflot have been found smuggling millions of dollars in stolen iPhones, iPads, and other electronics.
In a joint press release this week, the U.S. Department of Justice joined the FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the New York City Police Department, and several other agencies in announcing that ten individuals have been charged with illegally smuggling electronic devices — “particularly Apple products” — from the U.S. to Russia using employees of Aeroflot Airlines as couriers. As of the announcement, eight of the named individuals have been arrested while two remain fugitives.
While only ten people have actually been charged, the allegations suggest that these individuals were the masterminds behind an operation that involved a large number of Aeroflot employees. As a direct result of this investigation, the U.S. State Department has revoked a total of 113 visas of Aeroflot employees for their participation in this scheme, although no further charges have yet been laid.
According to the DoJ, the defendants also used passengers of the airline to smuggle cash and merchandise, although it’s unclear whether this was done with their knowledge or cooperation in the scheme. Those knowingly involved would receive instructions from the international smuggling ring to specifically travel to the U.S. to pick up stolen merchandise that they would then take back to Russia in their normal luggage.
As alleged, the defendants were members of an international smuggling ring that used a network of operators here and in Russia to circumvent U.S. export laws and regulations. With today’s arrests, the network has been disabled thanks to the outstanding work of the Eastern District of New York prosecutors who worked tirelessly alongside our agency partners to closely scrutinize the goods and individuals that transit our international borders.Seth DuCharme, Acting United States Attorney, Eastern District of New York
Over the course of the investigation, searches of luggage from Aeroflot crew members revealed millions of dollars in electronics devices, many of which were stolen and none of which had the necessary export paperwork. While the defendants traditionally used others as couriers, the release notes that in some cases they took the trips themselves. In one case, one of the accused carried nine suitcases on a single trip, containing 235 Apple products worth $250,000.
If you believe it is acceptable to exploit positions with a foreign airline to smuggle millions of dollars in illegal goods back to Russia as we allege, the answer is Nyet.
Yulia Spivakova, spokeswoman for Aeroflot, told the Russian news agency Tass that none of the ten individuals charged in the investigation have ever been employed by the airline, however Aeroflot is now in discussions with the Russian Embassy in the U.S. and the Consulate General in New York regarding other Aeroflot employees who may have been involved and any possible claims that could be raised against the airline. Russia’s Consulate General in New York also announced that it is currently in the processing of verifying information about any Aeroflot employees who have been identified in the smuggling case.