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Return to sender, Customs charges lead to mail pile-up

Published:Sunday | January 23, 2011 | 12:00 AM
In this 2003 file photo, the postmaster at the Norman Manley International Airport post office, Ivy Singh, peers through the window at her station. - File

Avia Collinder, Business Writer

The Customs Department is tightening its surveillance of the postal service, in some cases slapping higher and more charges on a wider range of items entering the country through that avenue.

But the increased vigilance by Customs has resulted in many pieces of mail being uncollected as would-be receivers baulk at the cost of clearing the items.

In the latter half of 2010, July to December, some 1,408 packages assessed for duty remained uncollected.

Shandilayne Davis, manager of Customs' parcel- post operations, said some mail recipients were unaware that items mailed could be subject to tariffs, and that there was the common assumption that "import duties are applicable only to electronics and items intended for sale".

Still, with some 44,301 'dutiable' mail packages passing through the land-based Central Sorting Office in Kingston, which is recognised as a port of entry, postal Customs revenue is said to be up.

"(This) can be attributed to increased vigilance of the Customs Department, higher tax rates, and changes in the nature of shipments coming through the post office," said Davis, who did not provide precise collection figures.

She said the cash raked in from mail accounts for less than one per cent of the total Customs collections.

Finance ministry data, however, counts Customs duty collections since April 2010 at $13.6 billions, or a monthly average of $1.7 billion, which would place postal contributions to the pool at less than $17 million per month.

Persons who allow packages to remain in the sorting office have 14 days in which to pay the charges levied and retrieve them.

After that the packages are held at the Customs Department's Queen's Warehouse and can be disposed of by the authorities after 90 days.

All imports, Davis noted, are taxable, although the type and number of taxes vary.

She added that a single tax rate is assigned per class of goods, irrespective of the purpose for which it is intended. For example, articles of clothing attract an import duty of 20 per cent whether they are being imported for resale, personal use, or sent to the recipient as a gift.

"Whether or not an item or shipment is taxed is determined by the value of the contents, not by the weight or size of the package," the Customs offcial said.

This value consists of the purchase price of the shipment, or the assessed value, as well as the cost of freight or postage and insurance. This is known as the cost insurance and freight, or CIF value.

Unlike the wharves, public bonded warehouses and air cargo operations, the post office has always done a system of examination of all items of mail, whether the examination is intrusive or non-intrusive, said Davis.

This system is facilitated by the Customs Department's right to search and the Post Office Act, which allows the postmaster general or his representative to act on behalf of the importer - the mail recipient - at the point of examination and assessment.

Like all other Customs operations, the Central Sorting Office requires an authentic invoice to be presented for value verification to help in determining the CIF value, on the basis of which taxes are calculated.

Import duties on commercially imported items, the Customs Department has pointed out, do not vary from those imported for personal use except in the case of some machinery and equipment.

There is a difference, however, in the General Consumption Tax (GCT) rates that are applied.

Commercial importers who are registered taxpayers are taxed at a GCT rate of 22.5 per cent, and registered persons at 17.5 per cent.

Revenue aside, Customs is vowing to keep up its vigilance at the post offices as part of its mandate to protect the country's borders.

"As we seek to safeguard our borders, it is our intention to increase our vigilance in an effort to circumvent the attempts of users of the postal service who seek to jeopardise our nation's security and niche in the global economy," Davis said.