WASHINGTON — More than 100 older Americans have been arrested abroad in the last 16 months because of scams used by international drug traffickers to turn unsuspecting seniors into drug mules, the Department of Homeland Securityreported Wednesday.

Federal law enforcement agencies have helped foreign governments arrest 15 people affiliated with the scam in Asia, Europe and Latin America, officials reported at a hearing of the Senate Committee onAging.

According to DHS, the scam begins with a criminal organization building relationships with seniors, usually online. The drug traffickers trick them into travelling overseas to claim lottery winnings, deliver important documents to their new online friend, or another seemingly believable reason. The scammers usually back up their story with fake documents like forged bank statements or government letters, convincing seniors they’re telling the truth.

Offering to cover all expenses, the traffickers arrange the seniors’ travel plans, which usually entail a layover in a foreign country. Here, the seniors are given packages or suitcases that they are asked to take to their final destination, another foreign country.  .

Unbeknownst to the seniors, the packages are filled with carefully hidden narcotics.

Often the drugs are detected by customs officials. Authorities have arrested 145 seniors on drug smuggling charges overseas. An estimated of 30 people remain incarcerated in foreign prisons.

During its investigation, Operation Cocoon recovered 272 kilograms of methamphetamine, 209 kg of cocaine, 11 kg of heroin and 4 kg of ecstasy smuggled by unwitting Americans into foreign countries.

At the hearing, Andy Martin of Henderson, Nev., spoke on behalf of his father, a retired pastor who was duped into taking 2 kg of cocaine to Europe by a woman he met online. Martin’s father, 77, is serving a six-year sentence in a Spanish jail.

“He just wants to come home and not die in prison,” Martin said.

The committee plans to expand efforts to protect seniors by educating them on how the scam works, building on existing awareness programs at nursing homes and community centers.

“I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that seniors and their families become aware of their techniques, and take action to protect themselves and their loved-ones from these heartless criminals,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the committee.

Both the Committee on Aging and Immigration and Customs Enforcement operate hotlines where people can report potential scammers.