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What to do When US Customs Insists You Owe More Money?

I got a frantic call recently where a Protest (not prepared and submitted by an attorney) was denied and an importer was facing a $200K payment in unpaid duties due to US Customs & Border Protection’s insistence that the classification had been incorrect under a bizarre set of circumstances, including that the tariff number in the country of export was not contained in the US version of the tariff, which is known as the "Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States" or "HTSUS." Since a Protest decision is considered a final agency action, this importer was now left with the only option of heading to court to challenge the US Customs decision.

The bigger concern with "issues" identified by US Customs (as if a hefty and unexpected monetary payment wasn't enough) is that the agency has an ability to go back and collect revenues it deems owed for the prior five years. Where known errors are discovered by an importer, it's in their best interest to go ahead and proactively notify US Customs and pay any outstanding money in advance of US Customs launching it own investigation. In this way, the penalties that could be assessed against an importer are limited and criminal liability is typically extinguished.

So… when US Customs does seek more money, any importer would be wise to consult with trade counsel on the matter in advance of filing a Protest which your Customs Broker may offer to do for a significantly smaller fee. The reason for this is because there may be other issues which could impact Customs determination along with other activities your attorney could identify that will save you money, time and the avoidance of future headaches. Of course the risks of penalties and Customs agreement with your position are never guaranteed with an attorney, but if staying in business is part of your game plan, then planning to stay in the game is an investment worth making.

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