Written by By Lena Rhyann, CNN
After eight months investigating suspicious air cargo, the Netherlands’ National Agency for the Protection of Children believes it has solved the mystery of 61 foreign-exchange-inflated cases of smuggling that passed undetected through Amsterdam over a five-year period.
No criminal charges have been filed against the perpetrators yet, but one man has already been extradited to Amsterdam to face serious fraud charges related to the scams, which began in 2014 and ended last year.
The agency says he’s now being held on charges of money laundering, foreign currency fraud and moving money without a license and was, in the past, “taking advantage of safety-valve arrangements on airplanes” in which travelers can put their money into anonymous bank accounts on behalf of others, with no suspicion of identity fraud.
The pot of money — $1 million plus — was accumulated when friends of the man in hiding sent money disguised as birthday money and would-be bribes in the form of cash and parcels to people behind bars.
“I tried to get news about the guy who was picked up and see if he was still planning to flee but I had to give up,” says crime writer Owen Barder, who alerted authorities to the scams in 2014.
The cases are so brazen that they become a matter of life and death, he says.
“On two occasions a lead agent was killed after accidentally climbing over the wall of a building where the person supposedly stashed the cash,” Barder tells CNN Travel.
“The owner of the property had a gun but didn’t put it to his head.”
Thanks to a tip-off from unidentified whistleblowers in South Africa, Dutch authorities were tipped off about the scam in June 2016, when a passenger on a DHL flight to Johannesburg landed in Amsterdam.
The individual had allegedly hidden $104,000 in $10 notes under his mattress, and there was more where that came from — in other words, millions upon millions of dollars.
Authorities still don’t know why people across the world were investing in hard currency deposits.
A man photographed while boarding a flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg in June 2016. Credit: LGTB/Netherlands Ministry of Security and Justice via YouTube
Dutch national chief inspector Branden van der Heijden says: “It appears the money was given to people in prison in an attempt to make them believe they needed money to visit their families.”
Five suspicious passengers were flagged as passengers believed to be involved in the scam, and last December Dutch police received an extradition request from the South African police agency responsible for investigating smuggling and money laundering.
Soon after the arrest, police alerted DHL and the airlines themselves. Now, any passengers suspected of being part of the scam can see a message on their boarding passes informing them that they may have a problem with customs if they arrive in Amsterdam from outside the European Union.
“I think it’s great. These people did serious things and will get very high prison sentences,” says Barder.
Though the person suspected in the scheme is still at large, DHL told CNN that, even if he is arrested, they’ll actively search for him.
According to van der Heijden, “The foreign currency scheme was largely dismantled thanks to the work of everyone involved and the confidence building work done. However, individual perpetrators still remain, and some will try again.
“DHL is deeply committed to being an active part of the fight against future cases of suspicious foreign currency trafficking.”