Snakeheads use various methods to get their customers to the West. They may employ the use of stolen or altered passports, improperly obtained visas, and bribes to move people from nation to nation until they arrive at their final destination.
They also may use fake business delegations and tour groups as a way of beating immigration controls. The rate of payment for successful smuggling can be as high as US$70,000.
One notable snakehead member was Cheng Chui Ping or "Sister Ping". Another is Guo Liang Chi, known mainly by his street name of Ah Kay, who was the mastermind of the Golden Venture cargo ship fiasco in 1993 that was financed by Sister Ping.
A North Korean emigrant seeking to enter South Korea may turn to a snakehead gang to be voluntarily smuggled out of North Korea. The smuggling would often turn into human trafficking if the emigrant does not pay the snakehead gang members back.
In popular culture
In the Lincoln Rhyme novel The Stone Monkey by Jeffery Deaver, the villain is a shadowy snakehead, nicknamed "the Ghost," who is intent on killing a family of Chinese immigrants who are the only witnesses alive who can identify him to the authorities.
The Alex Rider novel Snakehead by Anthony Horowitz features snakeheads as the smugglers that get him and Ash, his godfather into Australia, working undercover for ASIS (the Australian Secret Intelligence Service).
In the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, one of the operations puts the player on a ship carrying illegal Vietnamese immigrants. The gangster running the operation is referred to as "The Snakehead". This gang is known as the "Da Nang Boys". The operation is a direct allusion to the Golden Venture fiasco in 1993.
The TV series Hawaii Five-0 (2010) featured a snakehead in the pilot episode who is sentenced to life imprisonment – later to be revealed as a subordinate of the archvillain Wo Fat.
The zombie fiction novel World War Z by Max Brooks features a Snakehead gang member as a character, revealing how they helped transport infected refugees outside mainland China to the West and Central Asia.
The movie Premium Rush refers to the snakehead gang as the recipient of the envelope that is being delivered.