An investigation led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has unearthed an international smuggling ring that saw Aeroflot Russian Airlines crew help illegally smuggle $50 million worth of Apple products like iPhones and Apple Watches out of the United States and into Russia.
Ten individuals have been charged with the illegal exportation of electronic devices after an indictment and complaint were unsealed in federal court in Brooklyn on Monday. Two further defendants remain as fugitives and 113 Aeroflot employees have had their U.S. visas revoked for their alleged participation in the smuggling scheme.
“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 (no),” commented FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Sweeney after the charges were read out in court.
Prosecutors allege the smuggling ring illegally exported thousands of Apple iPhones, iPad’s and Apple Watches. Millions of dollars worth of high-value electronics were found in luggage belonging to various Aeroflot crew members after the scheme was unearthed. Investigators believe the ring illegally exported at least $50 million worth of electronics.
In one case, one of the ring leaders was found carrying nine suitcases containing 235 Apple products with an estimated value of about $250,000. Many of the goods recovered, investigators claim, had been stolen and were to be sent to Russia without the required export authorizations.
Search warrants were executed after the initial arrests were made resulting in law enforcement recovering over $600,000 in cash hidden in a crawl space of Marat Shadkin’s residence in Brooklyn.
Aeroflot crew members were allegedly roped into the conspiracy to help pick up the electronic products. The airline staff made their way to the United States on the instructions from one of the Moscow-based ringleaders. It’s not known whether the crew members carried out the alleged crimes on duty or travelled to the U.S. in their own time.
Sweeney admitted that the scale of the smuggling operation highlighted the fact that vulnerabilities existed in crime prevention. Airline crew have repeatedly been used as mules for smuggling crime syndicates over the year. In recent weeks, a Malaysian flight attendant was sentenced to nine years behind bars for helping to smuggle heroin into Australia.
Another Malaysian Airlines flight attendant was found guilty of attempting to smuggle £150,000 ($193,000) in criminal cash out of Heathrow Airport in West London in 2018. And former Emirates flight attendant Zohaab Sadique was found guilty of helping to smuggle heroin with a street value of £100,000 ($129,000) into the UK in 2017.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.