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Businesses accuse Customs of ‘abuse of power’

Business have complained about Customs holding goods (Photo by Akil Simmons)

Three heads of small businesses have complained of lost trade caused by arbitrary detaining of goods by the Customs Department.

One businessman said it ultimately took the Attorney-General to order the release of $30,000 worth of stock.

“I was told I would never have the problem again with those products,” the business owner, who asked not to be identified, said.

“But I had to go through eight months when they had my goods. If I didn’t have the resources to fight it with a lawyer, my goods would have been disposed of.”

He said shipments of the same brand of shoes were repeatedly held by Customs on suspicion of being counterfeit items, even though previous imports had been checked and released.

He said he had been asked to produce a certificate of authenticity for shoes, adding: “But that authenticity has to do artworks and jewellery.”

He called it an unreasonable request that threatened his ability to trade, and maintained that it had put him out of pocket by tens of thousands of dollars.

The retailer added that he had questioned what training customs officers had in checking suspected counterfeit items, and received no answer.

Another Hamilton business owner said she had a shipment of cases for electronic equipment held more than two weeks by Customs, who demanded proof of purchase for items that had been shipped on an invoice marked “net 30”, meaning the supplier allowed 30 days before payment.

“I have been in business 13 years and I’ve never seen it so bad this last year and a half,” she said. “I’ve spoken to other businesses who are having problems.”

She said Customs held one shipment for inspection, but that when it was released it was still at the shipping company and did not appear to have been checked.

She also said phone messages and e-mails went unanswered repeatedly.

“It’s already difficult enough for retail in Bermuda,” she said.

They spoke after Derrick Burgess, the Deputy Speaker, rose in the House of Assembly on February 9 to highlight the problem, accusing customs officers of acting “outside the scope of the law”.

The shoe importer said that in September 2022 Customs held a shipment to inspect them for authenticity. The items were kept for three months and released in December.

“In November 2022, they did the exact same thing and released them in December. The same products were detained, inspected and released. Then in January 2023 we brought in the same product from the same supplier and Customs said they were holding them again.”

A March 2023 letter from Customs told the business that goods that appeared to have infringed intellectual property rights were seized under the Merchandise Marks Act.

He was told Customs was in consultation with the Registry General about his case, which he said suggested “a fishing expedition looking for justification to continue holding on to the goods”.

A letter from Customs in June 2023 informed him that some of the goods were not registered under the Trade Marks Act 1974 and, therefore, could be released.

The business owner questioned why this had taken several months.

The customs letter also noted incorrect citation of the law on two forfeiture notices.

The business owner took on a lawyer to formally appeal the decision to hold the remaining goods in July 2023.

He accused Customs of citing inconsistent authorities and “consistently failing to provide reasons”, calling it “arbitrary seizure contrary to law”.

Correspondence reviewed by The Royal Gazette after the recommendation from the Attorney-General showed lawyer Jairaj Pachai confirming in November 2023 that the goods would be released and “that the counterfeit issue, as far as these products are concerned, will not arise in the future”.

The business owner said he believed Customs had become “used to bullying people”.

Customs defends its procedure

The Gazette queried customs procedure on seizing goods as suspected counterfeit and requesting certificates of authenticity.

We queried demanding proof of purchase on items shipped under net 30 days proviso from the supplier — meaning the recipient had that length of time before paying.

We also questioned what training customs officers had in determining whether an item was counterfeit.

Customs responded by saying the department “cannot discuss specific cases publicly”.

“While we cannot comment on specific cases, it is worth stating that goods are cleared according to the law.

“The Customs Department remains willing to assist all customers in the expedient clearance of their goods.

“We invite anyone experiencing undue delays in the customs clearance process to contact us at customs@gov.bm.

“We are committed to collaborating with the appropriate customs clearing agents to promptly address and resolve any issues.”

The head of a Warwick establishment said Customs did not understand small businesses.

“I’m not Front Street. I sell cheap electronics and I don’t keep a large inventory. I travel away and bring my stock back with me. My issues with Customs started a year ago.”

He said a box of items was held last February, adding that he wrote 15 query e-mails without getting a reply.

“Then I said if you don’t give it back I’m taking you to court. The very next day I got it back.

“Customs operate by ‘you keep complaining, we don’t reply, eventually you’ll give up’.

“I had $18,000 in goods detained last summer for suspected customs infractions. For two months they held all my phones. I paid duty, my invoices were submitted.”

He said he had been told by the Ministry of National Security that Customs was obliged to give detailed reasons for lengthy detainments.

“I think they enjoy detaining goods and not make the release process easy.”

He said that along with providing his invoices, he had shown Customs photographs of the phones in the overseas showcase where he had bought them.

He added he had requested meetings and had filed complaints without getting responses.

“It’s a very frustrating thing. But I believe if you file a complaint, they’re not willing to help you.”

He claimed: “I know that Customs is a toxic working environment, with a lot of in-house battles going on. That I could stake my reputation on.”

He claimed $15,000 worth of electronics had been held by Customs since mid-January despite having the right paperwork.

Speaking over the weekend, he said: “After nine or ten days, I sent in an early release letter on January 30. As of now, I’m no further forward.”

The business owner also requested not to be identified, adding: “My biggest concern is kickback from Customs.”

Is this something that has affected your business? Let us know by e-mailing news@royalgazette.com

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Published February 19, 2024 at 7:00 am (Updated February 19, 2024 at 6:43 am)

Businesses accuse Customs of ‘abuse of power’

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