Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Death, taxes and online shopping: tales of woe with the customs office

Customs has struck again.

For the third time in the past six months, I’ve had to pay upwards of 800 pesos (always as a surprise) in order to receive packages from the United States.

The first time this happened was over 15 years ago, when I lived in Querétaro. I’d ordered some carefully selected clothing from a company in India, and the delivery company (I find that things shipped through DHL are the most likely to get tagged and charged by Mexico’s customs) called me to say I’d need to pay the fee in order to receive my package.

Back then, 800 pesos was quite a sizable percentage of my paycheck, and I cried out of frustration and my own impotence to do anything about it.

I’d paid more than that for the contents, and it had been a stretch of my budget, so the news that I’d have to pay so much more panicked me.

Surprise customs fees and charges always feel like a hostage situation: pay us or you’ll never see your possessions that you’ve already paid for.

I did pay the customs fee and received my package, only to discover that the clothes did not fit. I had no choice but to cut my losses, and I vowed to never place orders for that sort of thing from outside the country again. If I wanted to order clothing, I’d just wait until I was in the U.S. and have it shipped there.

But apparently, I haven’t learned.

Yesterday, I received an order from a store in the U.S. that has an online Mexican storefront. I thought I’d be safe from customs charges. (I’m looking at you, Moon Magic!) So when I got the message from DHL (goodness, why is it always DHL?) that I’d need to pay 834 pesos in order to receive it, I immediately wrote to cancel my order.

I soon got a message back: you can either refuse to pay and customs will destroy the package (and we can’t issue a refund in that case), or you can ask to have it sent back, and we’ll refund you, minus the cost of shipping it back to us and any taxes and fees … once we get it back, of course.

So to sum up, my choices were:

  1. Lose the money and get nothing for it;
  2. Lose about half the money and get nothing for it;
  3. Pay considerably more than what I agreed to for the product.

I decided to go ahead and pay, but I’m still mad about it. Though I’ve been in Mexico for 20 years now, my American sensibilities when it comes to customer service aren’t something I can shake off. I expect the people in charge to fix the problem because that’s what I do.

So beware, my friends. Just because online stores have a Mexican storefront doesn’t mean they don’t still count as imports, and complaints are likely to get you a “not our problem” response.

The exception, the DHL delivery folks told me, seems to be orders from Amazon and Shien, who must have some sort of agreement with customs (not that I’m encouraging you to frequent these stores, but I figured you’d like to have the information).

My frustration, really, is more toward customs here in Mexico, which feels like a big kid holding up your homework and refusing to hand it over without receiving your lunch money first.

There is no way to argue with them. There is no number to call.

If you really want to fight, you can send them mountains of paperwork to contest their assessment of the value and wait for their response, which must be done before paying the fee; if you’ve paid, then you’ve accepted your fate. In the meantime, DHL will wait exactly seven days before marking it “undeliverable” and doing whatever they do with those packages; I highly doubt they “destroy” them.

One would think that simply by avoiding ordering from companies that must import their products to you from outside of Mexico, you could avoid this situation. But, really, receiving anything from out of the country is fair game.

Here are my other two sad stories from the past six months (I’m pretty sure that customs must have me flagged at this point as one of the doofuses that always pays).

Last year, I lent an old phone to a friend and wanted it back. She had since moved to the United States, and she and her partner had decided to send it back through DHL. Though they paid over US $100 to send it, once it got to Mexico I received the dreaded message: there would be a more-than-800-peso tax to pay in order to receive it, even though it was a six-year-old used phone.

My argument to my friend that I shouldn’t have to pay to receive something that I’d lent out fell on deaf ears, and I forked over the money during a time I was financially suffering so that I could get it back and give to my daughter to take photos with. Once I paid, more frustration ensued: the phone no longer worked.

The second customs fee I faced came slightly after Christmas: my dad had sent a package with a few holiday presents in it. This time, I only had to pay about 400 pesos! I was annoyed that I had to pay to get it, but at least everything inside of the box worked.

There are certainly much larger injustices in the world than this. However, this is information I’d surely want to know if I were new around here.

So, my friends, behold my cautionary tale: either bring what you want from the States with you when you first head down, buy locally or be prepared to fork over a ransom for whatever’s coming your way from up north.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, and her Patreon page.

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