Mobile customs groups: from combating sanctioned food to fighting counterfeits

17 July 2019

This article was originally published by IAM, and has been republished with permission.

In response to international sanctions imposed on Russia as part of the country's confrontation with the West over the political situation in Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula, the Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree in 2014 to prohibit the import of certain products and foodstuffs produced in the United States, the European Union, Norway, Canada and Australia.

The main issue facing those trying to enforce the new legal regulations was the lack of customs control at the borders of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Consisting of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the EAEU is based on the principle of free trade, with goods circulating within its territory without additional customs control. This has presented a significant challenge to Russian Customs, as products sanctioned under the 2014 decree could thus be imported into other EAEU countries and then transported to Russia. A radically different approach was necessary in order to implement effective control over the flow of sanctioned products and foodstuffs from EAEU member states.

A new, specialised customs division, divided into mobile customs groups, was created to detect and destroy sanctioned foodstuffs. Consisting of customs officers and federal veterinary and phytosanitary authority specialists, these groups were set up at key points near the Russian border to regularly and consistently patrol and inspect vehicles that come from EAEU member states. They soon began cooperating with the border service, prosecutor's office, consumer protection agency and the federal security service.

From November 2015 to March 2017, mobile customs groups inspected 121,900 vehicles carrying more than 4 million tonnes of goods and detected 19,000 tonnes of prohibited products. Given its success, they have also been used to detect other illegal products (eg, drugs and counterfeit goods).

Mobile customs groups near Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been some of the most productive due to the volume of traffic passing through these areas from China. In 2017 mobile customs groups in the Orenburg region identified more than 35,000 counterfeit products that infringed on more than 60 brands, including Adidas, Reebok, Dior, Gucci, Apple and Samsung. The same year, mobile customs groups in the Samara region detected 80,000 counterfeit items, ranging from clothing, shoes and bags to phone accessories and perfume. A year later, mobile customs groups in the Samara, Saratov and Orenburg regions together seized more than 400,000 counterfeit products entering Russia via Kazakhstan.

There are now plans to provide mobile customs groups with additional cellular and satellite communications as well as photographic and monitoring equipment to increase their capacity and results. There is also a plan to strengthen the integration of mobile customs groups with local police departments through joint raids and unified databases.

Mobile customs groups have become an important anti-counterfeiting force in Russia, presenting brand owners with three clear imperatives to better protect their brands:

  • recordal – brand owners should record their trademarks with Customs, making it easier for busy customs officers to contact them via details available in the Customs IP Register without contributing to congestion at border crossings;
  • responsiveness – brand owners should respond promptly to customs inquiries to ensure that counterfeit goods are seized; and
  • open lines of communication – concerned brand owners should seek to develop relationships with customs departments at key locations, such as Samara, Saratov, Orenburg, Novosibirsk, Tumen, Chita and Astrakhan, where mobile customs groups have proven to be highly effective.

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