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Tales of a Customs Officer

Speaker: Brian Topping

Sunday, 25 June 2023

The University of the Third Age members' meeting on Thursday 15th June featured a talk by Brian Topping entitled, 'Tales of a Customs Officer'.

During his long career, Brian had been an undercover officer, and had also worked with the Treasury Department and the Cabinet Office.

When Brian started his career at Heathrow, the bulk of work done by customs officers was about what passengers arriving in the country had brought with them, particularly with what they had obtained while abroad. This was to ensure that any duties applicable for what they brought in were paid and, that any that hadn't were 'declared' by the travellers.

This changed over time, as internet shopping meant that similar goods could be bought and delivered. But Brian provided a couple of accounts of when the passengers were checked in the 'nothing to declare' area.

First, when a man arriving from Ireland said that he was carrying a bottle of Holy Water. It was examined and found to be poteen – a strong alcoholic drink. When challenged, the passenger exclaimed 'It's another miracle!'.

Another passenger who had an expensive camera in his suitcase told the customs officer that it had been bought in his local 'Dixons' branch, only for his five year old daughter to say 'No you didn't Daddy, you bought it on holiday!'.

We were then told about the aptitudes that are required of customs officers. The first, being observant, meant much more than just looking at the passengers themselves. An example was when Brian saw a woman arrive in the baggage collection hall, accompanied by three small children. She took three suitcases from the carousel, and then a fourth – the first three taken looked well used, and inexpensive, but he recognised the fourth as a 'Delsey' suitcase. She entered the green (nothing to declare) channel, and Brian stopped her. At his request she opened the first three suitcases and, when asked to open the Delsey one, handed a key to Brian. The key didn't work. Another aptitude for a customs officer is to know, and remember, features of many types of luggage. A feature of a Delsey case is, or was, that for this model there is a number engraved on the barrel of the suitcase lock, which corresponds with its key. The two numbers were different. The woman said that this must be someone else's case which she took from the carousel by mistake. The case was opened with what Brian described as a specialised piece of equipment (a pair of bolt cutters!) and 16kg of heroin was found inside. The subsequent enquiries led to three people, including the woman, receiving substantial prison sentences.

Customs officers need to know what Brian described as the context of their job. He described this as knowing how, and why things are done on a certain way. Examples include what happens to passengers when they use a particular airline – where they wait in the airport, where they have access to before getting on the plane, where they wait, and who they might have contact with while on connecting flights, and even how they have bought their tickets.

Tickets bought with cash could indicate that the buyer is part of a criminal group trying to launder money, or conceal their true identity. Much of the same details apply to the passengers' luggage. Where does it go from checking in? What are the procedures at foreign airports if and when it is transferred to connecting flights? The same knowledge, and awareness needs to be 'mirrored', as Brian described it, to the airport where the customs officer is on duty.

Away from the constant surveillance, vigilance and awareness of everyday activities, customs officers also have to act quickly when a threat is imminent, but still needs a degree of planning and thought.

An example was when information was received about drugs being smuggled into the country in three weeks' time, and connected with Britain hosting the 1982 'Miss World' competition. Miss Bermuda was suspected of taking part in this enterprise, and this meant that Brian and colleagues had to work with their counterparts in Bermuda, and the Netherlands as it wasn't clear whether the final destination of the cocaine was there, or the UK. It was one of the many occasions when customs officers in the UK have to work through the night to gather and exchange information with colleagues around the world to protect our borders, and the public. 'Miss Bermuda pleaded guilty to bringing 2.2 lbs of cocaine with the street value of $320,000 at that time into Heathrow Airport, packed in the lining of a specially made suitcase.

Brian had a number of anecdotes, and slides, showing how criminals try to evade detection when entering the country. One of these was a 'smugglers vest, worn under a coat by a very well built and muscular man. This garment had 21 pockets, each containing a kilogram of gold, part of a worldwide criminal conspiracy to evade tax and launder money.

A trilby type hat, worn by another criminal had diamonds sewn into its inside. A customs officer knew the passenger had arrived from Antwerp, a major city known for its diamond industry and dealing. It also illustrated that if and when a search is made, it has to be thorough, however long this takes.

Brian asked the audience to put aside any thoughts or opinions about the use, or other aspects of drugs, and to bear in mind that the supply of illegal drugs is valued at two hundred and fifty billion pounds a year.

Criminals have no qualms about the damage to society that is still caused and invest heavily in this 'industry'. He showed us the example of two suitcases which were searched after information was received about possible drug smuggling. But nothing was found on the first search carried out. The cases were made of flexible imitation leather, and further examination of the sides which 'braced' them revealed built in numbered compartments. The drugs they contained matched the spaces exactly, indicating a high degree of sophistication and design of both the case and the packages. The development and manufacture of them had a cost borne by the criminals, and had possibly, or probably, been used successfully on previous occasions.

Brian had already told us that, of course, much of what he knew, and knows, can't be shared. What he could share were details of smuggling attempts that didn't succeed for obvious reasons, as being the only person entering the baggage area after a long, and probably warm, journey wearing a coat a few sizes too big… in July. Or someone who hid cannabis in the soles of his sandals, and the distinctive smell of the drug escaping from the packaging noticed by everyone but the smuggler himself.

On a more serious and sombre note, Brian reminded us of the dangers faced by all law enforcement officers – he had been seriously assaulted during his service, and an undercover colleague had been shot dead by criminals.

Brian concluded with a story that the audience were sworn to secrecy about, concerning well known people from the music industry, before our highly enjoyable meeting came to an end.

The next Todmorden U3A Monthly Members Meeting will be on Thursday 20th July, open to all fully paid-up members at the Central Methodist Hall, Todmorden. The speaker for this meeting is Colin Alderson with; 'Chef to the Royal Household'

Not yet a member? We're always delighted to welcome new members. Contact details: website at www.u3atod.org.uk or email at info@u3atod.org.uk.

Many thanks to Colin Sanson for this report


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