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Save time and money by being honest when going through customs

| Monday, June 11, 2018, 2:06 p.m.
Save yourself time and potential fines by being honest when going through customs. Here, passengers arriving from abroad at Los Angeles International Airport in 2014 use new automated passport kiosks, to expedite the entry process for U.S. and Canadian citizens andreduce time spent with a Customs officer.
Save yourself time and potential fines by being honest when going through customs. Here, passengers arriving from abroad at Los Angeles International Airport in 2014 use new automated passport kiosks, to expedite the entry process for U.S. and Canadian citizens andreduce time spent with a Customs officer.

Earlier this year, a passenger was standing on the jet bridge, moments from boarding his South African Airways flight, when an obstacle appeared in the shape of a Customs and Border Protection officer.

During the random search at Washington Dulles International Airport, the law enforcer asked the man how much money he was carrying. He responded $500, normally not an amount an officer would question, except in one instance — when it's a lie.

After digging a little deeper, the officer discovered $13,000 in the man's luggage. In addition to fibbing, the traveler had also broken the law by not declaring funds exceeding $10,000. Needless to say, he missed his flight and the agency seized his cash.

The moral of the story: Tell CBP exactly what you are carrying, down to the sleeve of nuts in your coat pocket.

“To be safe, it's better to declare it than have to pay a fine,” said Patrick Orender, the agency's assistant port director at Dulles.

Undesirable items

More than 25,000 CBP officers and agriculture specialists protect hundreds of sea, air and land portals against invaders. Thousands of undesirable items attempt to sneak into the country daily.

Many hitch a ride on edible souvenirs purchased by unassuming tourists; others arrive through nefarious means orchestrated by smugglers. On a typical day last year, officials unearthed 352 pests; 4,638 quarantined items of the plant, meat, animal byproduct and soil varieties; $265,205 in undeclared or illicit currency; and $3.3 million worth of products that violated intellectual-property rights.

Of the three categories the CBP oversees, two are straightforward: Don't buy counterfeit goods, including that obviously fake Gucci bag from Shanghai, and always inform an officer if you are carrying 10 grand or more into or out of the country.

The regulations on flora and fauna, however, come with a few asterisks.

The list of prohibited items is long and involved. For instance, Yorkshire pudding made with suet or animal fat is not allowed into the United States from Britain because of the fear of foot-and-mouth disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (commonly known as mad cow disease). But the stuffed pastry sans farm critters is allowed into Yankee territory.

Rise and fall of threats

In addition, the greenlit map for one food might resemble a puzzle with large missing sections.

Take pork, for instance. The agency only accepts commercially packaged and clearly labeled porcine products from Iceland, Australia, Canada and Fiji, as well as some specialty cured hams and pork delicacies produced in preapproved facilities in Italy and Spain.

Or bananas. Caribbean vacationers can bring the fruit back from Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Barbados and the Bahamas as long as the inspector can establish its place of origin. A foodstuff's status can also change weekly, depending on the rise and fall of disease outbreaks and pest infestations. You don't need to memorize the CBP catalogue, but you really must share your purchases with an officer.

“Your job is not to know what is allowed,” agriculture specialist Valerie Woo said. “Your job is to tell me what you have, so I can tell you if it's allowed.”

If you are worried that the act of declaring will automatically result in the agony of relinquishing, it won't. If the officer deems the product safe, you can enter the country with it. However, if you knowingly flout the rules, the agency could slap you with a fine of $300 (first offender) to $10,000 (major violator) and revoke your Global Entry privileges.

“If you do not declare an apple,” Orender said, “you could lose” your membership in the trusted-traveler program.

Regulations based on real threats

The regulations are based on real threats. Plants and animals can harbor bugs and diseases. Counterfeit goods, meanwhile, siphon profits from the original manufacturer and support an unsavory underworld.

“Knockoff items hurt the economy and put the consumer in danger, because they are made under conditions that are not regulated,” Orender said. “You also don't know what you're funding — sex trafficking, terrorism. Why fund the bad guys?”

Orender said the agency sees a rise in fake goods before major sporting events such as the National Football League's Super Bowl and the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup playoffs, as well as over the holidays, when wish lists to Santa include coveted footwear and designer bags and scents.

Passengers who declare their goods must go to a secondary screening area for inspection. To catch the undeclared, officers and their canine colleagues roam the baggage-claim area and hallway leading to the exit.

Enough meat for a butcher shop

Agriculture specialist Jennifer Jones said she and her colleague, Beazley the beagle, typically root out 10 to 12 items a day.

Jones and Beazley have been working together for a year and, in that time, the pup has sniffed out enough meat to fill a butcher shop. Last September, the pair discovered 10 smoked cow legs — hoofs and all — from Vietnam.

“The passenger declared beef,” Jones said. “There were two and half cows in four suitcases!”

Beazley also sussed out horsemeat sausage from Kazakhstan while it was spinning around on the luggage carousel.

To dispose of the banned goods, the officers chop them up in an industrial grinder or burn them in an incinerator.

Andrea Sachs is a Washington Post travel writer.

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