CINCINNATI (WCMH) — If you think you’re getting the deal of a lifetime on a luxury Valentine’s Day gift, there’s a chance a federal officer, and not your sweetheart, will open that gift.
NBC4 Investigates went behind the scenes with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the Port of Cincinnati, where more than 100,000 shipments — on a slow day — arrive from all over the world.
Screening those shipments for illicit items is a 24/7 operation.
“CBP is the first line of defense for any people and cargo coming into the country,” said Chief Supervisory Officer Eric Zizelman.
Packages subject to screening first pass through a sophisticated x-ray machine.
“As the shipments are coming through, we’re evaluating the image to see if we discover any anomalies,” Zizelman said. “Then we do a physical exam.”
NBC4 Investigates spent about three hours with customs officers. During that time, officers discovered poppy pods (Zizelman said those can be boiled to make an opium tea), a picture frame packed with marijuana, and a toaster oven with dental molds hidden inside (Zizelman speculated this could have been a test run for future smuggling).
Zizelman said his most bizarre discovery in a shipment was a stuffed animal filled with five live horned lizards from South Africa. Another officer said a sabertooth tiger skull was found in a shipment (he said the Smithsonian Institute confirmed the authenticity of the fossil).
Customs officers are also scrutinizing shipments for counterfeit goods.
Zizelman showed piles of previously-seized counterfeits, including luxury handbags and jewelry, Nike Air Jordan sneakers, and high-end wristwatches.
“That kind of stuff is happening all over the place,” he said. “You really have to be careful about what you’re buying– where you’re buying it. Consumer beware at all times. You’re getting an inferior product and you’re getting something that’s potentially dangerous.”
Zizelman said counterfeit brand-name electronics and automobile parts pose safety risks, displaying a box full of counterfeit Apple lightning charger cables.
“You don’t know how well this product is made, and if it’s not made well, could you plug this in and potentially start a fire in your home,” Zizelman said.
Another frequent find, according to Zizelman, is counterfeit pharmaceuticals. He said the most common knock-offs are cosmetic injectables and drugs used to treat erectile disfunction. During NBC4 Investigates’ visit, officers opened a shipment containing seven bottles of Botox, which Zizelman said was suspiciously packaged.
“This could be a legitimate Botox shipment or product,” Zizelman said. “But you don’t know for sure. You don’t really know what you’re injecting into your body.”
Zizelman said the trafficking of counterfeit products can also pose a national security threat.
“Goods like this are imported into the country, they’re sold, the profits are made, the profits are then sent back overseas to help support those terrorist organizations,” Zizelman said.
In Cincinnati alone last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized what would have been more than $105 million worth of counterfeit goods, had those products been genuine.
To protect yourself from buying a knockoff, make sure you are familiar with the seller—including on Amazon. The Better Business Bureau also recommends purchasing the item with a credit card so charges can be disputed if something goes wrong.