Staying out of Trouble with Customs and Border Protection

Eli DolganskyGeneral, Shipping Guide2 Comments

CBP officer at port

Roughly 24 million containers arrive at our ports and borders every year. Ensuring each one is safe to enter the country is a huge job, which is where customs officials come in. There are a number of reasons your cargo could be stopped and even seized, especially if you are not familiar with proper procedure. That being said, we have put together some information and tips to help you stay off CBP’s radar.

About Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

Although most United States citizens don’t interact with Customs and Border Protection officials on a daily basis, the CBP is one of the most important law enforcement agencies in the country. While police officers are busy tracking down domestic criminals and the CIA hunts for spies abroad, the CBP is busy guarding the coasts. Customs officials have some big responsibilities, including identifying and arresting terrorists, enforcing international trade laws, and seizing illicit materials entering the country.

There are currently more than 60,000 people working for CBP. That number might seem high, but consider this: on an average day, customs agents collectively arrest more than 1,000 individuals – and seize nearly half a dozen tons of illegal drugs in the process. Even when they aren’t dealing with dangerous criminals, CBP employees have their hands full interacting with the 1 million tourists, visitors, and businessmen and women who enter and exit the United States every day. Handling imported goods is one of CBP’s primary duties, and officials scan and inspect at least 65,000 containers of cargo every day – oftentimes more.

Day-to-Day Operations

In addition to intercepting shipments from drug cartels and illegal weapons dealers, CBP agents are also the experts in “legitimate trade and travel,” serving as a strict filter between foreign invaders and domestic bliss. Think of them like the country’s immune system, working tirelessly to make sure viruses and harmful environmental pathogens don’t compromise the American economy or way of life.

Here are some numbers to illustrate just how busy a CBP official’s day can get:

  • They handle 70,334 containers – from land, sea, and air
  • They make more than 20 arrests of dangerous criminals attempting to enter (or leave) the U.S.
  • They apprehend nearly 600 people who have been labeled as “national security risks”
  • They confiscate a whopping 10,300 lbs. of illegal drugs
  • They identify and seize upwards of $650,000 in counterfeit bills

History Behind CBP

Interestingly, the CBP has only officially existed as an organization since 2003. Prior to its founding, the responsibilities of this agency were handled by multiple other departments, namely the U.S. Customs Service.

The U.S. Customs Service had been overseeing the majority of trade and travel activities in the United States since 1789, but at various times also worked in tandem with the Office of the Superintendent of Immigration (established 1891); border patrol personnel (hired by Congress starting in 1924); and agricultural inspectors, who acquired their responsibilities from the terms set forth in the Plant Quarantine Act (passed in 1912).

Many of the aforementioned positions still exist – although some manifest in different ways – but all operate under the umbrella authority of CBP. Trade specialists, scientists, and public officials also count themselves among the ranks of this agency’s valuable staff, and their synchronized execution of duties is what helps keep the entire organization running smoothly, efficiently, and effectively.

How to Avoid Trouble

There are a myriad of ways you could get into hot water with Customs and Border Protection. If you want to stay on the organization’s good side, the simplest piece of advice we could offer would be to not do anything illegal! But unfortunately, it’s not always clear what constitutes “right” and “wrong” in international shipping, and plenty of well-intentioned shippers (far from being hardened criminals) can nonetheless end up with fines – or even felonies – if they aren’t experts on import and export regulations.

Of course, most of these blunders don’t have anything to do with harboring fugitives or smuggling illegal drugs into the U.S. Instead, CBP is more likely to seize your cargo as a result of some benign blunder like improper documentation or unapproved imports.

Not Having Government Approval

Although CBP doesn’t officially require importers to obtain a license, you might still need to get approval for your goods from another U.S. regulatory agency, such as the FDA or USDA – especially if you are shipping food or medicine. Tobacco products, firearms, alcohol, and wildlife all require special approval, too. Be sure to check what restrictions might exist on your commodities and diligently fill out any paperwork beforehand.Customs inspecting container.

You might be surprised at what types of items require a permit – or at least permission – before you can import them into the U.S. For example, if you are shipping electronic products that must meet a specific radiation standard, you will need to fill out a stack of forms first – and wait for their validation, of course. This is a particularly pertinent issue for shippers who regularly import goods meant for human consumption. Not only do they need to meet standards for the food and/or beverages they plan to bring into the country, but they must also verify that in shipping these goods, they aren’t introducing any pests or invasive species to U.S. soil.

The key here is to ensure that you have obtained all permits, licenses, and proper documentation before even allowing the shipment to leave its homeport. If you procrastinate or overlook even a single form, you could end up in a quagmire of processing requests and fines. If you are a commodities shipper who primarily handles perishable items, even a slight paperwork delay could leave you at a near total loss on the cargo of concern.

Intellectual Property Rights Violations

Violations of intellectual property rights are a serious business for U.S. customs agents, as counterfeit goods can substantially weaken the American economy. Every year, thousands of pirated products arrive at the border, and it is CBP’s task to identify these illegal shipments and keep the items from landing in the hands of consumers. Not only is the practice illegal, but intellectual property infringement also takes business away from the honest companies that actually hold the trademark, patent, or copyright license for a given item.

CBP uses a battery of sophisticated technologies to help spot IPR violations, including an online database that catalogs the rightful property owners and a nationwide reporting system that tracks repeat offenders. CBP also uses its connections with trading partners and other law enforcement agencies to quickly identify and approach potential culprits.

CBP officer describing how they target intellectual property rights violations

“CBP’s director of operations for New York area ports, describes how CBP targets imported goods for intellectual property rights violations prior to the 2014 Super Bowl.”

Despite their best efforts, intellectual property rights violations are an ongoing problem for the agency. In 2014, CBP confiscated over a $1 billion in counterfeit apparel, electronics, computers, toys, footwear, pharmaceuticals, and jewelry, the majority of which (63%) came from Chinese manufacturers.

The only way to definitively avoid intellectual property rights violations is to monitor your supply chain in a way that offers you complete confidence over the origin of your goods. Use only trusted manufacturers and suppliers, and ask to see proof of copyright or trademark ownership if you are skeptical. If you are working with a supplier that claims to be associated with a particular brand or company, it might be worth checking with the actual parent organization to confirm the relationship and the validity of the goods being produced.

Car Trouble

In the context of international shipping, car trouble refers to the increased difficulty of shipping vehicles between countries. This is because automotive vehicles must comply with specific safety regulations, and a car manufactured in one nation might not meet the operating standards set in another. In the United States, these regulations are detailed in several important pieces of legislation, including the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988, the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act of 1972, and the Clean Air Act (revised in 1990).

Shippers who attempt to import foreign vehicles that do not meet domestic standards have only a few options: export the cars somewhere else, bring them into compliance, or watch them get destroyed. And if CBP does seize your cargo, it’s unlikely you’ll see a swift resolution to the problem.

It can be a nightmare to ensure the vehicles meet all regulations set forth by the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, so your best bet is to get confirmation prior to purchasing. Don’t necessarily trust what a foreign manufacturer says, either; the company might not have updated information on U.S. laws or might think the incompliance is too trivial to matter. See for yourself and get legal verification first. You’ll be grateful you did – as will CBP!

Fraudulent Identification

We’ve mentioned the importance of documentation several times already, and it’s not because we mean to be redundant. Rather, correctly filling out all forms is a vital step toward happy relations with CBP, and failing to do so is one of the easiest ways to get on their watch list. And of course, intentionally providing fraudulent identification to customs officials could lead to much graver consequences than a simple demerit.

Fraudulent identification comes in many forms. One of the most obvious examples doesn’t have to do with cargo at all, but rather travelers. Non-citizens and criminal aliens who attempt to enter the United States often do so with forged or absent documentation, and CBP has an entire unit (the Fraudulent Document Analysis Unit) that focuses exclusively on this issue.

And just because they’re not trying to sneak into to the United States doesn’t mean shippers can’t get in trouble with CBP for identity fraud. If you misrepresent yourself; use a false address; inaccurately disclose your business associations; or present forged, illegal, or counterfeit documents of any type, customs officials could get suspicious. And it’s not likely that you’ll sneak under their radar, either; between the 19,000 agents who have been specifically trained in fraud detection and behavioral analysis to the biometric technology and modern lab facilities that CBP uses to track illegal activity, the organization forms a nearly impenetrable barrier to such falsification tactics.

How Do I get My Cargo Back?

In any of the aforementioned cases, penalties could range from fines to incarceration, depending on the severity of the behavior. However in most cases, shippers who mean well but lack appropriate information will have an unpleasant conversation with a customs official who tells them that their cargo is being seized.

If Customs and Border Protection has detained your cargo for any reason, the unfortunate reality is that you may never see your goods again. Officially, the Customs Office has to issue a Detention Notice, which details the exact reason for withholding your cargo and offers helpful information that customs attorneys can use to try to get your shipment back.

From the date that a customs agent apprehends your shipment, the organization has just 35 days to decide what to do with it. However, this timeline is often more a suggestion than a hard and fast rule – mostly because there are several other agencies, such as the FDA and EPA, which have to issue a ruling before any decision can be made about the cargo in question. It could easily take two months or more to hear the final word, but considering how much red tape and convoluted hierarchical structures entangle government agencies, 60 days is a pretty impressive response rate.

In the mean time, hiring a customs attorney could help expedite the process. For example, if your imports have been detained because CBP suspects they don’t pass EPA regulations, you could save yourself a lot of headaches by hiring a legal team to secure and verify documentation on your behalf. It might also be helpful to speak with a Licensing Officer from the Bureau of Industry and Security if you need assistance proving that you have been approved to carry the seized products.

What You Should Expect

Ultimately, there are really only two outcomes: customs releases your shipment, or they confiscate your goods…for good! In the latter case, they’ll relocate the cargo to a warehouse specifically for seized property, after which they will prepare an official “Seizure Notice.” Both you and your lawyer can review the notice and submit an appeal if you wish; however, you only have 30 days to request this petition, and even then CBP is under no obligation to release your goods. Regardless of whether you deny wrongdoing or simply claim that there were extenuating circumstances, CBP might still rebuff your request.

Even if you do ultimately win the appeal, you won’t be able to access your cargo until you pay the warehouse that has been storing your property in the interim. But considering the alternatives are for customs to either destroy or export the items – and also potentially fine you for illegal activity – paying a few storage fees might not be such a bad deal!

In Closing

An organized shipper with an orderly file of documents and quick access to all licensure and regulatory information will practically walk on water, while disorganization will not only drown you in delays, but also be a death sentence for your business.

Eli Dolgansky
Eli is a member of the Business Development team here at LILLY + Associates with almost 10 years in the logistics industry. Fluent in Hebrew, Russian & English, Eli handles numerous international and domestic clients helping them find the best shipping solutions worldwide while providing top level customer service.

2 Comments on “Staying out of Trouble with Customs and Border Protection”

  1. Joe devermann

    I plan on importing petrified wood products from Panama soon.
    Does this fall under wood products or minerals and would I need any special

    Thank you


    1. Gabby Poelsma

      Hello Joe,

      Thank you for reaching out! I just spoke with our in-house customs brokerage team – we would need a bit more information to identify the exact product category your wood falls under. As far as documentation, you’ll need to identify the exact type of wood, any treatments used on it, and phytosanitary documents. Hope this helps!

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