Chinese officials say they’ve busted a sophisticated crime ring that used a complex system of motorized pulleys, cables, and drones to sneak almost $80 million dollars worth of new Smartphones from the city of Hong Kong to Shenzhen, China. Reports state that this is the first time in the country’s history for a known cross-border operation involving an illegal transfer of goods using drones.
Shenzhen, China, is sometimes known as China’s Silicon Valley. It’s a major technology hub and a center for new business innovations in the high-tech gadget world and home to gangs who profit by stealing from the Chinese Government. Officials have seized 2 drones used in the operation, arrested 26 gang members, and confiscated thousands of Smartphones.
The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong reported that customs officers seized 900 Smartphones and arrested 3 people connected to the operation. The joint sting operation between customs agents and the Chinese Government was started in February, however, the details weren’t made public until last Friday, March 30th. Officials report that the people in custody belong to a network of several sophisticated gangs who used the blanket of darkness to transport massive volumes of undetermined, refurbished iPhones and other electronic devices across the border.
The State Media reported that gang members would use a pair of high-rise condominiums in Shenzhen and attach cables to drones and fly them over a border fence to other gang members waiting on a rooftop village house 660ft away in Hong Kong, China. The cables were outfitted and attached to motorized wheels which officials called the “flying line.” Once the sophisticated system was operational, the gang members smuggled attached bags full of Smartphones to the cable system and simply slid them across the border undetected.
The enormous scale of this alleged operation is mind-blowing and the sophistication of the equipment used is just as impressible. Officials state that each bag contained about 20 electronic devices and they could be zipped across the border in seconds. The gang members worked from 12 pm to about 5 am for 15 days a month and transported 10 to 15 thousand Smartphones on each shift. It’s estimated that the suspects netted about 10 million yuan ($1.6m USD) per month.
The South China Post also reported that the gang members went to great lengths to conceal their illegal activities by installing sound-proofing materials that reduced the noise of the cable system. Investigators received a tip from a citizen that lead investigators to the operation and to all of the buildings being used on both sides of the border. Officials say that the suspected gang members have smuggled over 500 million yuan ($79.5m USD) worth of Smartphones and other expensive electronic gadgets. After the bust was made, officials demonstrated how the high-tech “flying line” worked during a public news conference.
China is the world’s largest manufacturer and supplier of drones making this a personal matter for the Chinese Government. They’ve been cracking down on civilians using drones and issuing new regulations that require most commercialized drone owners “up to a certain weight” to register their drones using their real names. These new regulations are reported to be “a very important task” for the Chinese authorities. The Government published a series of very strict rules after drones in 2017 were disrupting aircraft flight paths and they took effect following the incidents that drones had disrupted restricted air traffic space in China.
The South China Morning Post also stated that drone-assisted smuggling operations on the Hong Kong/Shenzhen border might appear to be new, however, the use of zip-lines for illegal cloak-and-dagger transport isn’t. In 2011, customs agents busted a smuggling ring that shot fishing line over the border to Shenzhen with a crossbow to gang members in Hong Kong to transport expensive electronics.
Smuggling iPhones out of Hong Kong has influenced gang members to engage in illegal smuggling operations for years and the technique of using drones and sophisticated ziplines is a new approach, however, a man in 2015, tried to illegally smuggle 94 iPhones into the mainland of China by attaching them to his body underneath his clothing. Illegal smuggling operations in China will continue as long as the import taxes continue to rise, causing iPhones to cost more in the mainland than they do in Hong Kong.