International drug syndicates targeting New Zealand Airbnbs use tactics which should act as a warning to property owners, says a top official who has revealed specific moves to get drugs into this country.
Bruce Berry, NZ Customs investigation manager, highlighted some key clues for Airbnb homeowners to recognise in order to avoid having their places used by global drug syndicates.
The arrival of sports equipment such as golf carts, power tools or electric motors, booking via a third party, offering cash rather than paying through the global booking service and seeking an extremely long period of time such as two years to rent premises were some methods he revealed.
"If it feels strange, it probably is wrong," Berry said, explaining how some New Zealanders who had rented their homes to drug importers on Airbnb later told officials they felt things were not quite right and had noticed unusual aspects of the booking or guests.
Yet they had sometimes failed to warn officials and Berry encouraged people to act if they had any suspicions.
Airbnb says it has "absolutely zero tolerance for drugs and illegal activity".
Berry's comments follow Friday's police and customs announcements of New Zealand's largest meth haul: the 469kg discovery of a shipment from Thailand where the drugs were stashed inside 60 electric motors.
Airbnb and storage properties in this country were used in that operation, police and customs said.
That weight of meth is roughly half New Zealand's total annual consumption of the drug, estimated to have a street value of around $235 million.
Three men appeared in the Auckland District Court on Friday afternoon facing drugs and weapons charges. Their names were suppressed. Authorities said on Friday that further arrests were likely. The men are two Canadian nationals and a New Zealander. None entered a plea to the charges at the time.
Meth bust: Lawyers issue Airbnb warning to NZ homeowners
Methamphetamine is a class A drug, and the importation and possession charges carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Nine properties were involved in that bust, of which one to two were commercial and the rest residential. Authorities would not reveal where the properties were but some are understood to be in Auckland.
Airbnbs and storage units were named in the announcement. One of the properties listed as an address by a person charged in relation to the importation is given as Quay St. That property is an apartment in an upper level on the waterfront opposite the Ports of Auckland container area near Parnell.
Berry said the drugs businesses often rented New Zealand properties for a very long term: "We've got commercial premises where they've paid two years in advance in cash."
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Such premises were being used to receive commercial goods, he said, citing one example: the importation of 110kg of meth where golf carts were used "and the landlord knew. So we had phone calls into our Crimestoppers lines. That's the sort of thing we're looking at."
Crimestoppers' number is 0800 555 111 and for overseas callers +649 927 3971. Calls are anonymous and the website www.crimestoppers-nz.org invites people to list what happened, where it happened, who the wrong-doer is, when it happened and what is being reported.
Berry said people suspecting illegal activity must act fast.
"The owner says 'I thought it was a bit weird', or it was cash and that's the message we're trying to get through," he said, adding that people must not just shrug off the activity as strange.
He cited the example of homeowners discovering that those renting premises "had moved out and they find commercial equipment which has been deconstructed. Call us in. We can take action," he said of NZ Customs' ability to investigate the home as a potential crime scene, "or we can take information about who the Airbnb was rented to".
The largest meth bust in New Zealand began with an early warning sign, he said.
"Friday started off by us identifying people travelling to New Zealand," he said, adding that Customs officials noticed signals which led them to suspect potential illegal activity.
Reasons for travel were investigated and they fitted a profile associated with drug importers as "shore parties". Such people arrived in countries to facilitate the importation of drugs, he said.
One person is understood to have been linked to a commercial shipment into New Zealand but Berry said he couldn't give any further details.
An Airbnb spokesperson based in Australia said yesterday the business took the reports about New Zealand's largest meth bust extremely seriously.
"Our strict policies ban anyone found to be affiliated with a dangerous organisation from being on our platform. We have a global team who work hard to support local law enforcement and their investigations," she said.
"To help protect our community from fraud and other security issues, we prohibit offline or cash payments. We urge our hosts to be alert and we encourage them to notify us if they see something suspicious like a guest asking to pay a host offline or in cash," she said.