I’m a big fan of social shipping, a way for travelers to earn some money by delivering stuff to people at their travel destination. Most companies working on crowdsource delivery have a platform connecting individuals traveling with those needing stuff delivered. Often the traveler buys the item(s) desired after the recipient has paid the cost into escrow. It’s a pretty well protected system and the traveler has full control of the item being delivered from start to finish. But there are some different business models out there, and it’s important to be aware of the risks they might present to travelers.

A friend called my attention to this post from from Seat31b criticizing out Airmule’s crowdsourced delivery model as being risky to travelers. Airmule offers super cheap tickets to China, in exchange for the space in your checked luggage. Unlike traditional crowdsource delivery platforms, Airmule fills those suitcases themselves (though couriers are free to inspect the contents prior to travel). The author claims that Airmule can’t protect couriers from liability for what they are carrying. And with a suitcase full of stuff being carried to China, couriers might be breaking laws they don’t know about.

What disturbs me about this article is the unprofessional way that the Airmule staff handled followup. Their responses to the authors questions were not very clear or helpful. And their criticism of the author for getting the facts wrong still hasn’t been substantiated.

Before writing this I reached out to Airmule myself. I’ve had some contact with them as I requested details for posts I’ve written about Airmule. My email asking for their side of the story got no response, not even an acknowledgement.

There is a response to the article from Sean Yang, one of the Airmule co-founders, in the comments. He argues that Airmule is entirely legal (not a point in dispute) and that Airmule is responsible for the contents of all the luggage carried by travelers. He also clarifies that they pay duties when required. I believe his argument is that “On Board Carriers” are required to comply with various laws and this protects the couriers. But he doesn’t explain how Airmule ensures that shipments are in compliance with the Chinese Customs laws.

The Airmule Terms of Service state (in all caps): “AIRMULE SCREENS AND CERTIFIES ALL THE CONTENTS CONTAINED IN PACKAGES AND THE CONDITION, LEGALITY OR SUITABILITY OF ALL ITEMS AND LUGGAGE. AIRMULE SHALL PROVIDE TO COURIER A MANIFEST INCLUDING PHOTOS, DESCRIPTIONS AND VALUES OF ALL SHIPMENTS.  COURIERS ARE WELCOME TO INSPECT ALL SHIPMENTS PRIOR TO TRAVEL.  COURIER IS NOT LIABLE FOR THE CONTENTS OF ALL THE ITEMS CONTAINED ON THE MANIFEST.”

It may in fact be true that couriers are not liable for the contents of items they are carrying. But I wish someone from Airmule would take the time to explain exactly how this law works with Chinese customs. Until I see a clear response from Airmule on this point I can’t recommend that people use this service.