Every few weeks, I get a call from an international flight attendant who wants my help to deal with a huge fine issued by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The typical scenario is that while the nice international flight attendant is traveling overseas, she purchases some counterfeit, luxury brand handbags, wallets, watches or jewelry for friends, family, or co-workers back in the States. Flight crews are rarely stopped and searched by U.S. Customs upon return to the United States, so the risk is low. Unfortunately, some do get stopped, and the Customs officer seizes the counterfeit items. That is just the beginning of the nightmare.
Some weeks after Customs seizes the counterfeit items, the flight attendant will receive a formal written Seizure Notice stating what was seized, why it was seized, and providing an opportunity for him or her to file a Petition. Since the flight attendant typically only spent a few hundred dollars, and the stuff is clearly counterfeit, most people don’t bother to file a Petition, and the merchandise is automatically forfeited to U.S. Customs.
What the flight attendants need to know is that after the merchandise is forfeited, Customs will send a second letter assessing a fine pursuant to 19 U.S.C. 1526(f). The fine is equal to the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSPR) as if those counterfeit items were real. So, instead of a fine of a few hundred dollars for a few, counterfeit Rolex or Chanel watches, the fine might total $100,000, as regular readers know from my August 10, 2010 blog post "U.S. Customs Inflates Seizure Statistics".
Now, the flight attendant (or your regular international passenger with the same problem) realizes that he or she needs to get a customs attorney ASAP to file a proper Petition to get the fine reduced or canceled. If only the flight attendant had read my January 24, 2010 blog post, "Yes, You May Legally Import Counterfeit Merchandise into the United States," there would have been no seizure, and hence, no fine.
Anyway, I am always available to help a flight attendant in distress with U.S. Customs. Who knows, maybe the flight attendant will return the favor someday with some extra peanuts or, better yet, a complimentary upgrade to first class. :))