Flying Above The Law: Chinese Gangs Used Drones To Smuggle $80 Million In iPhones Into China

On March 29, the General Administration of Customs People’s Republic of China arrested 26 criminals who were part of a high stakes iPhone smuggling operation. The criminal ring used consumer drones to smuggle 500 million yuan ($79.8 million) worth of smartphones between Hong Kong and the mainland city of Shenzhen, the state-owned Legal Daily reported.

Customs officials describe the smuggling operation as the “flying line,” where 26 criminals used drones to transport two 200-meter (660-feet) cables between Hong Kong and the mainland China to carry tens of millions of dollars in refurbished iPhones.

A drone that was confiscated after authorities arrested suspects who used drones to smuggle smartphones from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, is pictured in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China March 29, 2018. Liu Youzhi/Southern Metropolis Daily via REUTERS

According to Reuters, the Legal Daily describes the latest bust as part of a much broader acceleration of illegal imports into mainland China, but, “it’s the first case found in China that drones were being used in cross-border smuggling crimes,” customs officials said.

State-owned media reports are unclear about which drone model was used, but speculations from images point to a highly modified DJI Phantom 4 Pro. Interesting enough, DJI is headquartered in Shenzhen, generally considered China’s Silicon Valley.

Under cover of darkness, Reuters reveals how the smuggling operation started around midnight and would continue into the early morning. Once the drones connected the cables between both buildings, the organized crime units were able to transport 15,000 smartphones across the international border per night.

“The smugglers usually operated after midnight and only needed seconds to transport small bags holding more than 10 iPhones using the drones, the report quoted customs as saying. The gang could smuggle as many as 15,000 phones across the border in one night, it said.”

A customs officer speaks at the crime scene after authorities arrested suspects who used drones to smuggle smartphones from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China March 29, 2018. Liu Youzhi/Southern Metropolis Daily via REUTERS

CCTV News Shenzhen Special Zone News published an exclusive surveillance video of the criminal gangs in action.

Here is social media’s response to the 200-meter “flying line” transporting 15,000 iPhones on a given night across international borders…

One Twitter user said, “And trump thinks a wall will keep drugs out? “Gangs used drones and pulleys to smuggle $80 million in smartphones from Hong Kong, officials say” Washington Post April 2.”

“Eventually, all technology will be used to support crime. Criminals are now using drones to smuggle smartphones into China,” said another Twitter user.

Although using drones to smuggle high-value products like consumer electronics across the Hong Kong/China border appears to be a new technique, the deployment of ziplines has been around for ages.

According to the South China Morning Post, government officials recently busted a criminal gang network, who used fishing line — shot over the international border with a crossbow to transport electronics into Shenzhen.