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Keeping your holiday shopping safe: How U.S. Customs & Border Protection seizes counterfeit goods

Published: Dec. 16, 2021 at 7:49 PM EST
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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WMBF) - Every day, thousands of imported containers are processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

And every day, counterfeit goods found in these containers are successfully seized.

“We’re proud to be a part of that secure supply chain and stopping these bad items from entering the country,” said Clay Thomas, CBP’s area port director in Charleston.

From facemasks with ripped-off luxury logos, to hoverboards containing explosive batteries - these are just some of the products officers seize after inspecting containers that arrive in Charleston.

Besides looking for items that are fake, CBP is also looking for products that could be hazardous.

“CBP is ultimately responsible for enforcing 500 different trade laws and regulations - from 49 different partner government agencies,” Thomas explained. “We’re the first and last line of defense before it reaches the shelves.”

CBP officers said those items that you’re finding on the shelves during the holiday season are the result of a culmination of months of cargo being imported and screened.

The agency processes about 78,000 containers across the country every day - by sea, truck and rail. They’re sent from all around the world, but the majority arriving in Charleston are from southeast Asia, particularly China.

With all the merchandise passing through, the agency comes across a variety of counterfeit goods. When containers that arrive at the Port of Charleston are believed to be of potential risk, they’re sent to a nondescript warehouse in North Charleston, where the CBP’s Centralized Examination Station is located.

“One of the first things that we do when we’re looking at a shipment, is we’re looking at the people who are bringing it in, and the people who have manufactured that merchandise,” said Brett Mueller, a supervisory CBP officer. “Then we can match that up against an index or database provided by a lot of the different big manufacturers and trademark rights holders, to make sure that they’re authorized to put their logos or trademarks or tradenames on the products that we’re looking at.”

In 2020 alone, the agency seized an estimated $1.3 billion in counterfeit merchandise across the country. That equates to about $3.6 million worth of fake goods, every day.

They’re goods that not only could have watered down an American brand, but could pose a safety issue for consumers.

“A lot of these counterfeit products are manufactured using inferior materials - sometimes in unsafe or unsanitary settings, sometimes with child or prison labor,” Mueller explained.

CBP has also been challenged by changes in consumer behavior.

During the pandemic, shoppers have been turning more and more to online purchases, instead of walking into big box stores, whose imports have added supply chain and security protections.

“We have to really rely on the skills and the talents of our workforce and our federal partners - not only within the federal government but also in industry, to combat some of these challenges,” Thomas said. “Because what could have been a container of 1,000 products of the same item, now is 1,000 different shipments of 1,000 different items, now that we’re going through - which makes our job not only challenging but critical.”

CBP uses a layered approach to analyze which containers could pose a risk at every step - from the beginning of a product’s time at sea, to when it arrives at port.

“Not only is our enforcement posture paramount, but also the facilitation of legitimate cargo coming in,” Thomas said. “We want to make sure that we’re an advocate for that supply chain, not being a detriment.”

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