Is there a way not to get caught receiving contraband?
December 10, 2008 9:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a spy novel in which the main character needs a scheme that ensures he can receive some contraband through the mail without being caught. It would be ok of law enforcement confiscated the package, or if the main character could know that law enforcement is involved (and therefore just abort the scheme) but the scheme can not allow a successful "controlled delivery" whereby my character is identified or caught.

My current plot involves having the package sent to a non gov't PO box. I don't think it would be plausible that LE would stake out a PO Box place for weeks waiting for my main character to show up and claim the package.

This doesn't seem terribly "ingenious," I would like something better to make the story more interesting. Any ideas?
posted by harriet.killjoy to Human Relations (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, my first guess, having watched many a cop drama, would be that the cops wouldn't have to stake out the PO box store, but have the employees watch for the perp to come in and hold him up somehow after notifying them. So that might not work.

What kind of contraband is it? Does it have to be noticed during transit? Well, I guess that creates suspense.
posted by sugarfish at 9:32 PM on December 10, 2008

What kind of contraband is it? Guns would need different delivery methods than drugs, biowarfare materials, microfilm, flash paper, plastic explosives, etc.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:36 PM on December 10, 2008

In Peter Corris' Frank Hardy novels, the ingenious private detective has a mate at Sydney University who occasionally agrees to use his office's address as a postbox in return for free drinks.
That also allows Corris to do a lot of description and local colour. Sydney Uni's pretty friendly for geographical exposition.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:40 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

criminals sometimes have fedex or ups deliver packages for them to houses of people they know are on vacation. so they use the occupants identity or some other stolen credit card information to buy stuff online, have it shipped there and just pick it up from the porch later. sometimes they even sign on the spot - it's not like the deliveryman will remember a particular face weeks later.
posted by krautland at 9:52 PM on December 10, 2008

Spies do not do this. They use what is known as a "dead drop" system, where a secluded but open and public place is used as a place where items are hidden and picked up later by means of a prearranged sign nearby.

The FBI has scouted such locations in the past and apprehended the spy making the pick up. Google Richard Hansen for details.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:53 PM on December 10, 2008

don't know what the law is like wherever you are, but here you need proof of identity to take out a PO box, for the precise kinds of reasons you are talking about.

i think krautland's on the money about sending it to somebody else's place - eg if they are on holidays, or maybe deceased or something. otherwise, send it to the spy's own residence, but addressed to somebody who lived there previously (as identified by the mail that inevitably shows up for them long after they've moved on) - plenty of plot twists you could work into that. or else, maybe addressed to the right person, but a slightly incorrect address (eg dyslexic house number). spy could show up at the other place & say "hey, a parcel was sent to me by my dyslexic grandmother - you wouldn't have received it, by any chance?" - something involving plausible & explainable confusion about the address. maybe to the body corporate of an apartment complex? or named OK but so badly addressed it ends up at the dead letter office, then spy shows up to collect it, showing ID?

otherwise, listen to Ironmouth on the dead drops.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:05 PM on December 10, 2008

Contraband would be something along the lines of "secret documents" so it would be a letter or package.

@sugarfish - the spy knows he may be under scrutiny, so he wouldn't allow himself to be "held up" by an employee of the PO Box place. As soon as things seemed fishy he would bolt. He wants to get the letter/package but isn't willing to get caught.

@Fiasco da Gama - I don't get it. Wouldn't the cops just stake out the office? Or are you suggesting it is similar to my current plot where the spy assumes if he leaves the package their long enough, the cops aren't going to sit around for weeks waiting for him. So worse case, they take the package, but he wouldn't get caught receiving it.

@krautland - Interesting, but we still have the same "stake out" situation if the cops have been turned on to the package.

@Ironmouth - I could re-write it so that a private courier service us used, but it seems implausible that they would be willing to drop off the package in a strange place (like a garbage can or something)

I think if my guy waits long enough to pick it up, the cops won't be there. They will either have completely given up (and have confiscated to package) or worse case they replace the package with something similar and have the PO Box place call them when my character picks up the package. But unless the cop station is right around the corner, my character can immediately hide the package somewhere and again wait until the heat dies down to grab it again (in case he is being tailed).
posted by harriet.killjoy at 10:10 PM on December 10, 2008

@UbuRoivas - we can assume the spy is essentially a known entity to the cops. but he can't be caught in possession of the contraband. So I don't mind so much that his name is on a PO box. But I do like a couple of your other suggestions. They are intriguing.
posted by harriet.killjoy at 10:16 PM on December 10, 2008

Steganagraphy hidden in hundreds of ask.metafiliter answers over a couple fo months encoded by bad speling.
posted by troy at 10:26 PM on December 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

Bike courier? Surely someone would be willing to drop off a package in a garbage can for enough cash.
posted by niles at 10:37 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dammit Troy. Now I gotta go back to pizza-braille and the old stalwart: engraved fried rice in the chinese take-out.
posted by Kerasia at 10:55 PM on December 10, 2008

I remember in The Constant Gardener, the guy had stuff mailed to his friend's cranky Great Aunt who lived in rural Italy and spoke no English. More of an obfuscation technique.

You could have the package Fedex'd somewhere where no-one is home so that the package gets held at a local depot, and have your spy pay a homeless guy to walk in and pick it up for him. He could even target a homeless guy and make a fake ID for him in advance, then address the package to him. That sounds pretty ingenious.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:56 PM on December 10, 2008

harriet.killjoy writes "Contraband would be something along the lines of 'secret documents' so it would be a letter or package."

Secret documents the spy needs to read would be sent as microdots in a normal letter, or as coded radio signals, or, hell, he could just pre-arrange to check certain websites.

The only documents that would be sent in unaltered physical form would be documents he'd use as part of his cover: IDs, passports, etc. If the spy's country has an embassy or consulate in his target country, he'd get them from a dead drop supplied by the agent-in-place at the embassy, or through a chain of illegals.

If the contraband is large or bulky (e.g., a radio, weapons, a laser spotter to direct aircraft), it would either be dropped in by (para)military forces (as the OSS did in Occupied Europe and the CIA did in the Warsaw Pact), or delivered through commercial channels (the Soviets used Soviet or Warsaw Pact merchant ships).

If the spy's an illegal and he's known to the cops, he's blown (unless the cops don't know he knows he's blown, in which case he might supply disinformation; but in that case, it's easiest to let the cops intercept the package and the disinformation with it).

If he's not an illegal, but has some sort of official cover as non-spy foreign official, he's still mostly blown, again except for disinfo, or very very dangerously servicing illegals when he can escape surveillance.
posted by orthogonality at 11:02 PM on December 10, 2008

Your character goes to Home Depot and buys a mailbox. He drives just outside town to a rural area moderately populated with a mix of 2 to 20 acre lots, finds a lot with vacant acreage, and plants the box next to the access gate. He looks at other mailboxes on the road, decides on a good number that fits the pattern, and marks it on the box. He sends some letters to the mailbox for a week or two just to get it up and running. The rural carrier figures it's just another new customer and puts the standard rural service card in the box and begins servicing it. One day the "item" comes through. The protagonist drives up at midnight, pulls the mailbox out of the ground with its booty, and is gone.
posted by crapmatic at 11:53 PM on December 10, 2008 [10 favorites]

No. If the person can get it, they can be traced to it. It's sort of the definition of a physical item.

The only foolproof way around it is if the trackers aren't aware that it is or contains contraband (orthogonality's microdots, or Troy's steganography.) Or to break it into innocuous elements. For example person A sends fertilizer, person B sends potassium nitrate and the rogue agent fills up on diesel fuel--all perfectly legal substances. Well, in most of the world. Together they make a very destructive bomb, but each of them delivered separately would not usually be actionable.

Of course this is how old fashioned codes work. The one-time pad was delivered through one channel, the encoded messages through another. Separately they are incoherent, only together do they reveal their insightful payloads.

If you do go with the PO box, use a private mail box firm. The USPO is much more paranoid about misuse and go to greater depths to validate the holder. They're also a lot more friendly with law enforcement. I'd think the PO would give you one of those "too big for the box" notices, then when you go to claim it, give you the runaround for fifteen minutes while they find it and give time for the cops show up. On the other hand the Mom & Pop shop that I have my mail box with probably don't want anything to do with the cops because it would put a crimp in their pot smoking.

Other sneaky ways to pass goods are to have one person pawn the item, send the claim ticket to the other person and have them pick it up. (Hide the documents inside the pawned item.)

Coin lockers are another good way (send the key) but coin lockers are a bit rare these days in much of the world.

How about airline baggage claim? One person "forgets" to claim a bag, sends the claim tag to the other person who claims the luggage. You could also use a Lost & Found, but there's a danger of it getting lost or found by the wrong person.

Detective stories and spy novels are full of this kind of stuff.
posted by Ookseer at 11:53 PM on December 10, 2008

Ookseer writes "On the other hand the Mom & Pop shop that I have my mail box with probably don't want anything to do with the cops because it would put a crimp in their pot smoking."

That's why they'd co-operate with the cops, to avoid being charged for their crimes.
posted by orthogonality at 1:28 AM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why send the real package through the mail at all?

The real papers are hidden in someone's furniture, sent with a moving company. Later the character breaks into the house of the person who moved, unscrews the back of a desk, and pulls out the package.
posted by gryftir at 2:02 AM on December 11, 2008

They have 24-hour po box places. Most of the time to open one (at a non USPS facility) it just takes an ID and maybe a bill (easily forged right?).

I'm a fan of using unsuspecting accomplices. 1.) Use craigslist to hire an errand runner 2.) Have them pick up the package from the po box or ship it to their house. Some scams in foreign countries actually use to post jobs for "American assistants". They have them setup faxes / receive and remail packages, etc. LINK Your spy could stake out the assistants house to make sure nothing suspect was going on.

If sending through UPS or similar they have a service whereby the sender can call and request the item be held at the sortation/distribution center (for a fee). They could do this at the last minute to avoid staked out delivery locations.

Dead drops as mentioned. Ship to a vacant house or apartment where packages are left at the managers office. I like shipping to big multi unit buildings, waiting for delivery then walking in "Oh Hi I'm from suite 201, UPS called and said they dropped off my package at 102! Can you believe it?".

Oh or maybe ebay a ups / fedex uniform. Then have the package delivered by the same company to a random house. Wait an hour or a day. Come to the door dressed up in uniform and explain "the mixup" reclaim the package.
posted by syntheticfaith at 4:09 AM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

No offense to the OP, but you don't seem to have a firm grasp on the conventions of your genre.

Perhaps yours will be a break-through novel that overturns those conventions, but those of us readers of the spy-fiction genre accustomed to those tropes may find your novel, even if it's "The Real Thing" and more truly accurate than what we have learned to expect, as unconvincing as the Monarchs Henry James's protagonist paints in his eponymous short story.
posted by orthogonality at 4:42 AM on December 11, 2008

A one-time pad system could work for PO boxes. The sender and recipient both have a list of destinations that they work through in sequence. Each box is used only once. Law enforcement can't nab the recipient unless they compromise the sender or otherwise obtain a copy of the list. The downside is that you can only make as many deliveries as you have destination addresses on your list.
posted by Ritchie at 5:22 AM on December 11, 2008

Have your spy drop in every morning at the coffee shop on the first floor of a multi-story office building. Have him introduce himself as "Jim Smith, I work in 22b upstairs! Oh, this is 1b? I'm 22 floors straight up! What a coincidence!" He always has a smile and a hello and a nice tip for the barristas and knows everyone by name.

"Jim Smith" is always there around when the mail is dropped off - it's just the time of morning he goes to take a coffee break. Oh, look! Someone sent a document envelope addressed to Jim here instead of 22b! "Hey, Jim, they think you work here now! Ha ha ha!"

"So does my boss! Ha ha ha! Thanks for catching that. Welp, time for me to go back to work up in 22b! I've got papers to notarize!"

Jim Black, the infamous spy, comes out of the coffee-house with his customary briefcase... the agents staking him out know that it's empty, that today isn't the day, as no-one apart from the mailman entered the coffee shop, and the mysterious empty office up on the 22nd floor remains dark and unused.

You can probably fill in any number of "It's all going wrong... no, wait, it's working... no, wait, it's not!" suspense bits to make it interesting.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:46 AM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have your man steal some housekeys from an estate agent - they sometimes have racks of them in the back of the office, helpfully labelled by address, for viewings. Then he just needs to case the house to make sure no one's living there and have anything he wants delivered.
posted by Mocata at 5:59 AM on December 11, 2008

Send packages to a corporation where your pickup guy works in the mail room. Saw this in a cop show.
posted by barjo at 6:43 AM on December 11, 2008

How high tech can the solution be? Have the spy hide a tiny transmitter in the envelope that stops transmitting when the flap is opened. Then he strolls past his mail drop with a receiver in his ear. If the package isn't transmitting, he just keeps walking.

For extra MacGuyver points, have him pull the triggering mechanism from one of those greeting cards that plays horrible music and use that.

(Why does it stop transmitting when you open it instead of starting? Because this way works even if the package is opened and the envelope is swapped for another one.)
posted by hayvac at 10:05 AM on December 11, 2008

Spy works for post office/fed ex/etc. Could pick up package before it's delivered. Or better, send it to another address and have the spy intercept it. Would be vaguely associated with the spy, but the amount of mail could involved could hide it.

Another variation of using obscurity would be to have the spy get lots of mail. Fan letters perhaps. Or catalogues. Or credit card applications. Any one of which could be the actual letter.

Item doesn't get mailed, but instead delivered to a store. Info is in one of the boxes of any sort of item that moves off shelves slowly. Spy buys all of them, perhaps one at a time. Or lets someone else buy them and follows them.

Package with a gps/camera and a transmitter in it. Spy could see if the package had been intercepted or tampered with. Spy could also steal it at any point in it's transmission since he knows where it is. That way the final address could more or less be arbitrary. Could also detect if it has been opened.

Spy works as "Santa". Secret letter is a letter to Santa.

Letter is encoded in junk mail. Same junk mail goes to everyone. Only spy can decode it.

Some variation of sending out hundreds of decoy letters. Too many to stake out. Spy takes a chance and picks up the one that matters. Spy would also have multiple destinations to watch to try to determine if he is being watched.
posted by alikins at 10:51 AM on December 11, 2008

May I just say: awesome question, and awesome answers!!! This is one of the things I love most about AskMe. Now I'm thinking all spy-ey.
posted by indiebass at 11:34 AM on December 11, 2008

okay, so the cops know about the package and so they will always know about the destination because you have to disclose that to the delivery service. even if it were a pizza they'd have thirty minutes. you'd think this was a tough one to solve but to the rescue comes a german blackmailer/extprtionist who called himself "Dagobert" (referring to this guy):

Dagobert's real name was Arno Funke and he had the brilliant idea to ask for his money back (and then some) from a national high street retailer with the help of explosive materials. he was quite the inventive chap when it came to his cash delivery methods. one time he built a slide-like construction that he put onto a rail track. the cop delivering the cash found the slide, put the money onto it and watched it zoom down the track, eluding the stakeout they had set up. the whole thing didn't work out because the slide crashed before it reached Funke, who was waiting further down the rail tracks.

another time Funke had cops deposit his ransom in a box used by street and sanitation services to store sand and salt for the winter season. those are about trash-container size, bright orange and can be found quite frequently around german cities. the cops making the deposit didn't notice a false bottom and staked out the box for hours while Funke got to the cash through a tunnel he had dug before the whole thing went down.

Funke was eventually caught and sentenced to 8 years and there is ample documentation about his exploits on the web. I linked to the wikipedia article.
posted by krautland at 4:11 PM on December 11, 2008

Thought of a couple more today:

Get work as a valet. The source puts the documents under the driver's seat and has the target park the car (and easily secret out the documents.) The cops cant watch to see the transfer take place and they can't search or track all of the cars that go in and out of a valet service.

Have the source work in retail. You go into the store, buy some merchandise from your contact, pay and leave. They put the merchandise in the prepared bag with your documents in it, but no one will have noticed the switch.

Your target takes a taxi to a predetermined location and time. They pay, get out, and leave your package behind. You're at the same location hailing a cab, so you take the one they just left and take the package too.

These should work if they have one party staked out, but not both since they'll brace you after you make contact. That's what dead drops are for, but then the cops just take out the drop point.

Seriously though, just about any mystery/thriller/spy/detective story has tons of these. I watched an old (original) Mission: Impossible the other day where they made the cops think the contraband was tied to one of a hundred helium balloons they let loose which was enough of a distraction (cops shooting down balloons) to let them escape with the secret recording in their pocket.

Though if you're writing a spy novel you have enough familiarity with the genre that I don't have to tell you.
posted by Ookseer at 6:42 PM on December 11, 2008

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