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Export Scam

Categories: Opinion

Like most businesses, my company occasionally receives emails asking basic questions such as what credit cards we accept, can we ship to other countries, etc.  Many of these emails are scams. 

But we see one particular scam fairly often.  The "customers" will buy something relatively large but inexpensive, pay for it, then ask if they can have their own shipper pick it up and ship it.  When they do this, they'll re-pack the crate with drugs, money, or other contraband, then try to list our company as the exporter.  If the package is confiscated by customs agents or another law enforcement agency, it would be traced back to our company.  The scammers thereby reduce their risk of arrest, prosecution, conviction, incarceration, etc.

In an effort to get confidential information from their targets, the scammers will make a few claims that simply aren't true:

1. They will ask the seller to complete a form that they say is required by the government of the country they want to ship the merchandise to.  Among other things, the form contains a space for your business' Federal tax ID number, and the name and title of an executive or director from your company.  Do not complete the form, and do not provide any information that the form requests.  The information you're required to provide by the laws of your own country and state is already on the original sales receipt, which the customer should already have.

2. They will ask for a special invoice, claiming that the sales invoice or receipt you gave them for the purchase, which presumably meets your state's requirements, does not meet their country's import requirements.  First of all, you are not obligated in any way to meet any requirements of any laws other than those of the country, state, province, etc., that you do business in.  For example, if you operate a business in California, and your customer wants to pick up the merchandise he purchased from your business and ship it to Mexico himself, you have no obligation to do anything required by the Mexican government.  As long as you provided the customer with a sales receipt as required by U.S. and California laws, you have met your legal obligations.

The buyer may tell you that the form or special invoice is used to declare the value for the country of destination, which is not true.  Your sales receipt or invoice should indicate the value, and if the value changes after the sale, it's up to the customer to document that, not you or your business.  If the value hasn't changed, and the buyer's government doesn't accept your company's sales invoice or receipt, that's something the customer will have to work out with his/her own government.  It is not your responsibility to mediate between a citizen of another country and their government.

According to Matthew Walker, manager of, this is clearly setting the seller up for another scam which involves phoney stories of additional government fees needed to release the goods.  The scammers will try to coerce the business into paying those ficticious fees.  Walker, who has studied email scams for more than 11 years, adds, "People need to take the small thefts seriously as they are really only psychological hooks for much worse crimes to come."

These scammers are persistent, and it is possible that the buyers aren't even aware that they are involved in any criminal activity.  They may simply be told to buy something, and they're given specific instructions on how to get the merchandise to its final destination.  This became apparent to me when one buyer would listen patiently to my responses to her demands, and then pause before responding, as if she was receiving instructions from a third party who was also listening in on our conversation.  In any case, the buyers will pressure you relentlessly, and try to make you feel like it's your responsibility to provide them with the necessary information.  They'll tell you that the last boat to China (or wherever) leaves tomorrow, and that if you don't complete the form they send you, or otherwise provide them with specific information, the merchandise they purchased and picked up will be confiscated by customs agents and they'll never see it again.

Here's the bottom line: If anyone buys any kind of merchandise from your business, and they pick it up from your business, warehouse, etc., it is solely their responsibility to then ship it wherever they want using their own information.  Once they pick it up and sign for it, it is out of your hands and entirely in theirs.  You have no obligation to participate in the export of that merchandise, or to provide them with any information other than what was on the original sales receipt or invoice.

This also applies if you agree to ship the merchandise to one destination, and the customer then wants to ship it from that first destination to another destination in another country.  Once the merchandise arrives safely at the original destination, the destination you agreed to ship it to, it is out of your hands.  It is then entirely up to the customer to make arrangement, without your participation, to ship the merchandise to any other destination.

What you can do, if you choose, is offer to have the customer ship it back to your business, at the customer's expense, where you can open the package, inspect it, re-pack it, and ship it from there to any address you normally ship to, all at the customer's expense.  This is the only way you can serve what might be a legitimate, innocent customer while protecting your own company's interests.

Although my business is regularly targeted by this particular scam, Walker says, "Yes, I have seen the drugs repackaging scam, however, it is quite rare in the scale of things.  There are also many money-laundering scams interwoven with all these.  It's really hard to categorize the scams as they mix and meld them to various degrees."

Another more common scam, according to Walker, involves fake credit card numbers.  These are usually from African countries - Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana are the top three - and areas with high African immigrant populations such as London, Netherlands, Spain, Thailand, Malaysia, and America.  The scammers may be using a credit card number generator (which may or may not go through) or they might be using stolen credit numbers.  A variation of this scam is for the scammers to pay by bank check.  "This scam plays out because they know many businesses have automatic cheque depositing which doesn't get flagged as fake for a few weeks," says Walker.  "The scammers have a few weeks to say 'Look, the cheque cleared - now send the goods immediately!"  They may also offer to cancel the transaction altogether if the business agrees to "refund" a portion of the original transaction amount.

In the time I've been with my company, we've never been stung by any of these email scams, but there must be countless other businesses that aren't aware of these trick.  Don't be one of them!

Many thanks to Matthew Walker, manager of, for his dedication, insight, and information.


"If you can't say something nice, let's hear it!"   — Joan Rivers

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