BY RON TAYLOR
It looked innocent enough, a neat package clearly addressed and stamped with a detailed declaration of contents and price from a legitimate Canadian health foods supplier.
It was one of thousands in a day's intake at the Mangere International Mail Centre, by Auckland International Airport.
So why did it get a second glance?
"Because of two things," says Brent Guthrie, a team leader for Customs' postal operations. "First, profiling, secondly instinct. You get a feel for it ... You think, 'That's not right. It's worth a closer look'."
And so it proved with the health food. Hidden among the legitimate products were plastic tubes containing banned steroids.
Profiling was the key ingredient last week when Customs at the airport looked at a BMW car gearbox cover from Belgium in a bonded warehouse and intercepted 25,170 Ecstasy tablets.
Clues such as origin can be important.
What is the customs team after?
Drugs especially. Steroids are common, along with such drugs as Ecstasy, popular on the clubbing scene and linked to the deaths of two young people in Auckland in the past 18 months.
And there is the sinister ketamine, a medical product slipped into women's drinks to incapacitate them. The drug was cited in evidence during a rape trial in the Auckland High Court.
The 18-member customs postal team at the airport, which includes Mr Guthrie and the other team leader, Dave Mayers, averages around 70 interceptions a month of objectionable or prohibited items.
A look through the register of items seized reveals guns, knives and other weapons, drugs, animal parts used in Asian potions, objectionable material, restricted medicines and goods with false trademarks.
"Work here for a while and you get an insight into another side of human nature," says Mr Mayers, who has been with Customs for 40 years.
What goes through the mail centre?
Every piece of inbound and outbound air and sea mail passes through the centre, which is a secure, specially built clearing house opened three years ago and covering nearly a football field in area.
About 50 million pieces of mail come into the country in a year and nearly the same amount is sent overseas.
In the past 12 months, searches of incoming mail by Customs have yielded approximately 8kg of amphetamines, 0.5kg of cocaine, 0.25kg of heroin and more than 8000 tablets of Ecstasy, not counting last week's haul.
What are the telltale signs of something illegal?
Sniffer dogs help search for drugs, but a profiling system is the key to checking for imports that are illegal and undesirable.
"We look for telltale consignment addresses and countries of origin, forms of packaging, what's declared as contents, sometimes weight, little things which may betray what people don't want us to know," says Mr Guthrie.
"But obviously, with such a vast volume, it's impossible to check everything. We accept that we miss some things and those regularly sending [products such as Ecstasy] work on the basis of losing some to us while getting other stuff through."
Customs works closely with Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Quarantine Service staff. They complement one another's expertise on the three moving belts where the search of inbound mail begins after it is unloaded from containers by postal workers.
Drug dogs roam the belts while customs officers pick through the passing array. Items of interest are set aside for possible closer examination in a secure area which is under continuous camera surveillance around the clock. The cameras protect customs staff from any allegations of improper conduct which may be levelled at them by people whose mail has been inspected, and also ensure security for the importers.
Mail which gets through the initial profiling on the belts is subjected to MAF x-rays plus an MAF dog's nose before reaching postal workers for sorting and nationwide distribution.
How much mail is looked at in detail?
About 2 per cent of incoming mail is profiled for further examination, but not all is physically looked at.
Those items not opened go for x-ray by MAF officers .
"There are times when we both pick up items of interest to each other ... it's a very good arrangement," says Mr Guthrie.
At times some odd and macabre items arrive in the mail, such as the recent find of a specially made plastic bag to fit over the head with draw strings attached.
"It was a suicide bag obtained [from the United States] by mail order," says Mr Guthrie. "We scratched our heads over that one.
"Were we aiding and abetting [an offence - which attempting suicide is not]? We referred it to our investigations section ... They came back with the answer that it was not objectionable."
What about firearms?
Illegal firearms may arrive whole or in parts.
Senior customs officer Stu Perry has become something of an expert on gun parts, although he is not specially trained - "just five years on the job [he has been in Customs for 20 years] and a lot of reference material so I can identify what's in front of me.
"You get to know the capabilities of this and that, and what is the real purpose of a quite ordinary-looking part. Some are semi-declared as machine tools or parts to try to fool you.
"For example, an ordinary-looking spring is really an ejector spring.
"That may be all right for a rifle or shotgun, which don't have a permit requirement, but it's different for pistols [which are illegal].
"Some weapons come in completely broken down, and now and then you get one declared as a child's toy. Then there are some brands of air pistol which can be readily converted to take live ammunition."
Customs have a revolver like this at the moment, and a starting pistol.
Mr Perry says the potential recipients are notified that Customs is holding the items and they are welcome to front up.
"If the individual is up to no good, they forget about it. We send them a reminder after a month, and if there's still no response we ultimately seize the item."
What problems do ordinary people have with Customs over imported goods?
E-commerce and the ease of ordering products from overseas on the internet is adding to the volume of mail which peaks to around seven million items in the month leading up to Christmas.
What a lot of people overlook when ordering by e-mail is that duty is payable on certain goods, especially clothing and footwear, which are very popular, and also GST.
One of the traps is ordering from an Australian company, says senior customs officer Eddie Hita, who is in charge of revenue collection.
Many goods on offer are made outside Australia, in China or Malaysia for example, and therefore are not exempt under the Australia-New Zealand free trade agreement.
"Trying to explain that to some people can be a little difficult," says Mr Hita, who has been with Customs for 18 years.
"They don't understand that having paid for them [by credit card] does not mean they're not liable for the payment of duties. Besides, anything that's valued in excess of $NZ400 is liable for GST anyway."
The $400 benchmark is quickly reached these days because of the fall in the value of the New Zealand dollar against the United States and Australian currencies used in most e-mail purchases.
A case in point is the importation of cigarettes. Many Asians do not like New Zealand cigarettes and import brands from their home countries, where cigarettes are very cheap.
But the duty has jumped to $51 a carton, which puts the cost of imports on a par with local cigarette prices.
Under the circumstances, Mr Hita and his staff are required to exercise "tact and amiability," as Mr Mayers puts it.
The heavier duty payments are adding to return-to-sender instructions, says Mr Hita.
"An increasing number of people are so shocked at the unexpected cost that they say 'send it back' and New Zealand Post obliges at the cheapest possible rate. The cost is charged to the sender.
"Others grin and bear it, but may think twice about future orders. Of course the overseas sellers don't generally warn internet buyers of duties liable, although to be fair a lot of them wouldn't necessarily know."
Because of e-mail ordering and currency fluctuations, revenue collection at the mail centre has topped $1 million a year.
While revenue compliance it is not a primary function of Customs at the mail centre, the task is taking up more and more of officers' work.
But the main function is still to intercept prohibited and restricted imports. As Mr Guthrie says: "Essentially, our role remains one of community protection against the undesirable."
BY RON TAYLOR