U.S. Issues E-Commerce Customs Warning

U.S.-based online shoppers who buy products from other countries riskbecoming ensnared in the intricate legalities thatgovern overseas purchases and importation, warned the U.S. Customs Service in an alert issued Monday.

“Shopping on the Internet seems quick and easy, but buying gifts or othergoods online from a foreign source turns the shopper into an importer whomay be subject to complex regulations,” said Customs Commissioner Raymond W.Kelly.

Kelly also advised consumers to sidestep any legal pitfalls by fullyreviewing the department’s regulations before making an online overseaspurchase.

Defining Importers

According to Customs, “When goods move from any foreign country to theUnited States, they are being imported.”

The Customs interpretation could transform e-shoppers buying products from abroad into international importers — responsible and liable for purchases brought into the U.S. that run afoul of state and federal import regulations.

“Importing goods that are unsafe, that fail to meet health coderequirements, or that violate quota restrictions could end up costing youquite a bit of money in fines and penalties,” says Customs in a publicationon Internet transactions aimed at consumers.

“At the very least, such goods would be detained, and possibly destroyed, byCustoms,” the alert said.

Restricted Goods

While certain items — such as narcotics, child pornography and taintedfood — are completely prohibited from importation, a vast number of other products fall into a restricted category that is broadly defined.

Importers who wish to bring restricted products into the country may need aspecific license or be limited as to the amount that can be shipped in, saysCustoms.

Certain food and agricultural products, alcohol, tobacco, firearms,prescription medications, and products from endangered species are itemsthat are subject to the agency’s restricted mandate and could be seized ifthey do not meet the criteria for entry.

For instance, Customs requires a permit to import soft cheeses such as brieand certain meat products such as pate. In addition, a license is needed toimport a gun.

Also, depending on the country of origin, linen products may be held up by the department because of quota restrictions, subjecting the buyer to paying storage costs to Customs.

The agency also noted that many types of products, including those purchased “from an established business or from an individual selling items in an online auction,” must clear Customs.

Under the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States — which expands several volumes — consumers are required to know whether particular goods are subject to restrictions.

Hidden Costs

In addition to navigating the regulatory maze, online buyers may also berequired to pay duties and other fees that are separate from the usualshipping and handling charges.

“You should not be misled into thinking that the purchase price includesduty because the seller cannot say with absolute certainty what the dutywill be,” Customs said. These imposed fees could result in the productscosting more than their overall worth, the agency said.

Shipping methods, such as international postal service, courier or freight,also can alter import rules, and each has its own benefits and pitfalls.

In another warning to online shoppers, the agency said that that if a foreignseller misrepresents the monetary value of an item in its Customsdeclaration, the purchaser could be held liable for and charged with Customsfraud.

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