‘We have seen a rise in fake Covid equipment during the pandemic’ – Customs Director-General

Joseph Chetcuti, Customs Director- General

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 May, 2021 at 2:32 pm by Andre Camilleri

‘We have invested in a state-of-the-art scanner at the freeport’

“Over the last year, there has been a rise in fake Covid Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as swab tests and even ventilators passing through the borders,” Joseph Chetcuti, Customs Director- General told the Malta Business Weekly.

“Although Malta has not been a destination for this paraphernalia, we have identified such items on route to other countries,” said Chetcuti. He explained how a change in strategy to a risk-based approach has provided fruitful for the customs teams, with more accurate checks in all areas of their work, including the Anti Money Laundering, (AML) team.

Chetcuti said, “This vital section was introduced, within the Department’s structure, in November 2018, commencing with a team of four Officials.  It was, subsequently, enhanced by five additional Officials in 2019. The AMLT is now working in close cooperation with the newly established Customs Canine Unit, the Customs Enforcement Unit and the Customs Intelligence Services. The section has also improved cooperation with other counterparts, such as the Police anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing units and the FIAU.”

During the last six years, Chetcuti has been at the helm; the team has worked relentlessly to increase the Department’s capacity building, upgrade systems and staff training. “In 2016, the staff complement was under 300, with no recruitment taking place for 25 years, leaving the Department with an ageing workforce. This means that at a time when the digital economy and e-commerce were gaining ground, the digital generation was simply absent from the Department’s workforce. The Department’s staff complement now stands at 400, intended to increase to 550 by 2023, thus providing a better age mix. Additionally, we have also invested in a state-of-the-art scanner at the freeport and have improved our infrastructure immensely”.

 The Customs Department has also employed a system through which information is electronically shared, in real-time, with the FIAU and the Police, to provide key figures and trends about high-risk individuals, countries and other monitored jurisdictions. “To my knowledge, we are the only country using this system”, added Chetcuti.

Against this background, the Customs Department has signed several Memoranda of Understanding, among others, with several government agencies. These include the Police Force, the FIAU, Malta’s Security Service, the Attorney General’s Office, the Asset Recovery Bureau, the Sanctions Monitoring Board, the Central Bank of Malta, the Commerce Department, Transport Malta and Valletta Cruise Port.

Chetcuti continued, “Notably to say that, in this spirit of collaboration between law enforcement agencies, the Customs Department’s canine teams, specialized in detecting concealment of cash, are at times seconded to the Police when searches for cash are carried out at private residences and other remote places”. The addition and training of more dogs is another area Chetcuti has grown.

From 2016-2020, The AML team intercepted €2.4 million in undeclared cash.

“Contrary to popular belief, there’s no limit to cash you can take through the border- you just have to declare it. If you are carrying €10,000 or more, you must declare it. But if our officers have reason to suspect any foul play of a lower amount, you may also be stopped,” advised Chetcuti.

How is Customs involved with tackling AML?” Chetcuti explained, “Of course it’s a mammoth operation. With regards to money laundering, Customs is mainly engaged on four fronts. Firstly, in gathering information, monitoring and investigating the cross-border movement of cash. Secondly, in detecting offences related to contraband and other related illegal activity.

We also look into trade-based money laundering cases, such as over-invoicing typologies; and in monitoring and investigating, together with the Sanctions Monitoring Board, cases involving strategic trade and sanctions.”

But what happens to the seized money? Chetcuti was quick to reply, “If no legitimate explanation is found, it becomes property of the state.”

Aside from tackling AML, since 2020, the Customs department registered, year on year, record-breaking drug seizures (tons of cocaine and cannabis resin), with a total street value of more than €179 million; detained 176 million ‘Tramadol Pills’, hydrochloride tablets used by Jihadists and by militias in war zones with an estimated value of €1.2 billion. They have seized over 900 dummy rifles used in training exercises by militias; seized two containers full of Libyan Dinars, worth nearly €1 billion; intercepted millions of counterfeit goods, with a total value of more than €111 million; and seized millions of contraband cigarettes, with a total value of €43.5 million.

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