Dumb tourists, smart agents: How Customs nabs smugglers

Undeclared smartphones and drugs aren’t the only illegal things people try to bring into Israel

Customs officials found these stuffed bats in an electronics shipment at Ashdod Port (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Customs officials found these stuffed bats in an electronics shipment at Ashdod Port (Photo credit: Courtesy)

In the post 9/11 world, air travelers are quite aware of the rules on what they are allowed to bring on board planes, and what they are allowed to import into their country of destination. And they are also aware of the new, high-tech methods airlines and customs authorities around the world use to monitor what travelers are carrying.

Travelers know all this — but they still try to sneak some strange things into Israel’s borders, according to the Customs Division of the Israel Tax Authority. Like on Sunday, when tourists from China tried to bring over 500 packs of cigarettes through Ben Gurion Airport without declaring them to customs officials.

The cigarettes were just the latest in a series of odd items customs officials have found in travelers’ baggage in recent months — such as the stuffed bats an importer tried to sneak through Ashdod Port in a cargo of electronics equipment, the rare frogs hidden under clothing in a traveler’s suitcase, or the gold bars hidden in the heels of shoes that three Palestinians from Hebron tried to smuggle in from Jordan. Undeclared gold, in fact, is commonly found among travelers going through the Allenby bridge, the crossing point between Israel and Jordan. In 2013, the Authority said, customs officials seized 250 pounds of gold, worth over $5 million.

These, of course, are in addition to the “run of the mill” illegal import attempts by Israelis and tourists alike of large quantities of electronics, clothing, perfume, and drugs through the country’s entry points. The Customs Division is an integral part of the Tax Authority’s enforcement unit, which deals with tax evaders, verifying whether businesses and individuals have paid their taxes, and building cases against those who haven’t.

Tax officials use a wide variety of resources to track down those who fail to pay — whether by “personal recommendation” (i.e., someone submitting a name for investigation), random checks, and other methods which an Authority official declined to describe. In a recent case, for example, officials used immunization records to get to a Bedouin shepherd in the Negev who bought and sold sheep “off the books.” Between 2005 and 2011, the shepherd diligently filed forms with the Agricultural Ministry to sell nearly 10,000 heads of sheep — supplying required evidence that they had been inoculated according to regulations.

Rare frogs seized by Ben Gurion Airport customs agents (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Rare frogs seized by Ben Gurion Airport customs agents (Photo credit: Courtesy)

It was those records that proved the shepherd’s undoing; tax officials matched up his income declarations and noticed that he had failed to report sales of the sheep. In a recent trial, he was fined NIS 200,000.

Among the other records the Authority uses, a spokesperson said, are those relating to registration of vehicles, and records of those going abroad — the theory being that those who fail to report income or under-report it can’t afford to buy cars, or take vacations. The Authority uses sophisticated data mining techniques to make those connections; if they haven’t found a tax deadbeat yet, the spokesperson said, they will, sooner or later.

The Authority has gotten much more aggressive in recent years, the Authority spokesperson admitted, and that pressure is being directed from the very top of the political heap. At a recent conference, Bank of Israel Chairperson Karnit Flug said that unless Israel figures out more ways to raise money, taxes on Israelis are going to have to go up — yet again. Since that’s the kind of thing that gets politicians sent home instead of reelected, the government has been urging the Israel Tax Authority to up its game and collect more money, both from Israelis who owe back taxes, and from locals and tourists who try to bring items into the country without paying customs.

Ben Gurion Airport uses the “Red/Green channel” system; those with nothing to declare walk through the customs area on their way out of the terminal building at the airport, and generally are allowed through the Green channel, unless they appear “suspicious.” The Authority would not share its criteria for that suspiciousness, but one thing it does take into consideration is the behavior of travelers, “profiling” those who appear nervous or act in a “non-standard” manner when trying to leave the airport, the Authority said. Among the items caught recently by officials thanks to this profiling were smartphones – 310 of them – that an Israeli returning from abroad tried to smuggle through customs, the Authority said.

In addition, customs officials use dogs, monitors, and other methods to interdict illegal items – especially drugs. In one recent case, drug smelling dogs sniffed out a shipment of 1,000 innocent-looking stamps – that were soaked in LSD. The dogs were deployed at Ben Gurion Airport’s airmail processing unit, where the Authority said they are constantly on patrol to catch contraband being sent through the mail.

LSD-laced stamps sniffed out by Customs Division dogs (Photo credit: Courtesy)
LSD-laced stamps sniffed out by Customs Division dogs (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Sometimes smugglers actually make things easy for officials — as was the case Sunday, when a group of Chinese tourists hung around the Arrivals area in the airport, apparently looking for a way out of the building without passing through customs. Arriving on an early morning flight from Beijing, two travelers tried to pass through the “nothing to declare” Green channel, but were flagged by customs officials, who opened their suitcases — and found 100 packets of undeclared cigarettes that were not purchased in a duty-free shop.

Undeclared cigarettes seized by Customs agents at Ben Gurion Airport (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Undeclared cigarettes seized by Customs agents at Ben Gurion Airport (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Apparently, the Authority said, other members of the group saw this and searched for another way out of the arrivals area — a search that took them six hours, they said. That, the Authority said, was enough grounds to consider the group “search-worthy.” And since it became clear to the group only after six hours that there is no other way out other than through customs, customs officials were afforded plenty of time to keep tabs on them. Giving up, they tried to pass through the Green channel — and the agents who nabbed them found another 400 packets of cigarettes in their bags.

The cigarette story was just one of many stories officials could tell, an Authority spokesperson said. “The Customs Division works day and night to protect Israel’s borders by interdicting illegally smuggled items, including drugs, weapons, and funds that are part of money-laundering efforts by criminals,” the spokesperson said. “We also have and will continue to ensure that taxes are properly paid on legally imported items.”

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