Seized at Customs: 22 Ludicrous Items to be Caught With
The innocent age of air travel came to an end some time in the late 1960s.
There had been isolated hijackings of commercial aircraft since the 1930s, but international aviation did not really wake up to the threat until the period between 1968 and 1972, when armed men, often acting alone, took over a commercial aircraft roughly every fortnight and ordered the pilot to fly somewhere other than his planned destination.
In the early years this was usually Cuba, and the planes were frequently being seized, thanks to lax security on the ground, from airports in the southern USA.
There were 40 attempts on US planes in 1969, yet still the authorities balked at the idea of screening. Checks were fairly rudimentary. Staff were looking for suspicious behaviour, and just 0.5 percent of passengers were screened with an electronic magnetometer.
Over the next 30 years airport security was tightened around the world, but still it wasn't tight enough to prevent many hijackings and blown-up planes. Certain airports in certain countries were notorious for their light touch or non-existent checks.
Everything changed after 9/11, when four planes were hijacked in the USA and flown into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. From 2001 onwards the world's airports have brought in ever tighter airport screening measures, deploying increasingly sophisticated detection equipment.
Today it's an unavoidable preliminary to the flight, that slow trudge through security, as we take off jackets and coats and shoes and belts, and display our under 100 ml liquids and hope we don't qualify for the always slightly degrading frisking and baggage check.
The 23 of the most shocking items seized at customs
This greater vigilance, while undoubtedly making aircraft passenger flights safer, has also spawned a new category of 21st-century “Just fancy that” stories of weird and only occasionally wonderful items confiscated from innocent or calculating or downright stupid passengers.
1. 66 iPhones
The innocent passenger, with nothing to hide, knows that he or she will not be bothered for the rest of the trip. The smuggler, in this case a Chinese man with 66 iPhones strapped to his body with duct tape, still had suspicious eyes during the flight to worry about, and customs officers at the receiving airport to evade.
2. 75 live snakes and six lizards
A woman scratching her chest in Stockholm attracted the suspicion of custom officials, which later revealed 75 live snakes concealed in her bra, as well as six lizards under her shirt.
3. 293 grammes of ecstasy
If you give a few minutes to search around the web you can find many examples of ingenious, and less so ingenious ways people try to hide or disguise things. For instance 293 grammes of ecstasy was found hidden inside of a Mr. Potatohead doll in Australia.
4. 1800 pounds of marijuana
Or the 200 donkey statues found in 2009 by US customs, containing 1800 pounds of marijuana.
5. A bird of paradise
Wildlife seems one of the hardest things to smuggle, but people still try. In 2002 customs officials at Los Angeles Airport disturbed a bird of paradise in a passenger's bag. It escaped briefly and flew around the terminal.
6. A two month old tiger cub
At Bangkok International Airport in 2010 customs found a sedated two month old tiger cub in a suitcase full of stuffed animal toys when it went through an X-ray scan. The cub might have fetched £2,000 on the Iranian black market. It was sent to a zoo.
7. 200 tarantulas
And what about the 200 tarantulas seized in 2012 by customs at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, hidden in a suitcase? The live spiders and other assorted grasshoppers and millipedes were handed over to Dutch animal welfare authorities.
8. 51 live tropical fish
Another woman was apprehended in transit from Singapore to Melbourne with 51 live tropical fish hidden in pockets in an apron under her skirt. Customs officers notices a strange “flipping” noise coming from her waist, then found 15 plastic water-filled bags.
9. 10 human eyeballs
Human remains? That goes on too. 10 human eyeballs were found in a passenger's luggage, in a jam jar at Stansted Airport in 2007.
10. A human skull
Two Italian women were prime suspects when they were caught with a human skull at Munich airport. Under questioning they revealed that the skull belonged to a relative who had died in Brazil and wished to be buried in Italy. They presented a death certificate, they were allowed to proceed.
11. 70 million year-old dinosaur skeleton
As well as drugs and diamonds, high-value antiquities are a favourite for the smuggler. Recently the US government confiscated a 70 million year-old dinosaur skeleton from the Gobi Desert successfully smuggled into the US in pieces and auctioned for $1 million. And in 2010 antiquities smugglers were stopped with two statues from the 6th century BC.
12. 220 polished diamonds
A South African jewel smuggler swallowed 220 polished diamonds, worth £1.4m, in an attempt to smuggle them out of the country. He was arrested as he waited to board a plane to Dubai at Johannesburg airport.
13. A dead 92-year-old man
We do have a tendency to laugh at some stories, even when they're not true. There's the case of two women who, allegedly, tried to smuggle a dead 92-year-old man onto a plane for Germany at Liverpool's John Lennon airport in 2010. The women protested their innocence, insisted that, with his eyes closed, they believed the man was asleep. One of the women commented:“He was alive. He was pale but he wasn't dead. A dead person you cannot carry to Germany, there are too many people checking”. The police later told the women that no charges would be brought against them. Even the august Guardian had to issue a “correction and clarification”, saying that it wasn't true the couple had attempted to smuggle the corpse on to a flight or that he had been dead for 12 hours when he arrived at the the airport, apologising for any distress caused.
14. Inert hand grenades and other weaponry
This following story, however, is irrefutable, in that it comes from the US Transport Security Administration (TSA) blog, December 2012. Despite the deadpan delivery it's really a rather shocking reflection on people's lack of common sense. “We continue to find inert hand grenades and other weaponry on a weekly basis. Please keep in mind that if an item looks like a realistic bomb, grenade, mine, etc., it is prohibited – real or not. When these items are found at a checkpoint or in checked baggage, they can cause significant delays. I know they are cool novelty items, but it is best not to take them on a plane.”Four inert grenades were discovered in carry-on bags at Chicago O-Hare, Dallas, Houston, and Juneau.
15. AT-4 rocket launcher
Recent discoveries included an AT-4 rocket launcher. “This particular AT-4 at Latrobe was expended, but it was an eye-opener for our officers to say the least.”
16. More grenades
A grenade shaped belt buckle was discovered at LaGuardia. A perfume bottle in the shape of a grenade was discovered at Houston.
17. Razorblades in socks
The blog also lists “Items in the Strangest Places”. An 8 inch knife was detected under the lining of a carry-on bag at Newark. A razorblade was detected in a sock at Newark. Another 8 inch knife was detected in a cane at Baltimore.
18. 26 stun guns in a carry on bag
To complete the list, 40 stun guns were discovered in a week in carry-on bags around the nation. The blogger notes: “A passenger at Boston had seven stun guns in his bag. They were Christmas gifts… One could say they were ‘shocking' stuffers. And this probably sets some sort of record: a passenger traveling out of John F. Kennedy had 26 stun guns in his carry on bag.”
Sometimes there is genuine humour in the “caught at customs“ stories. Take the case of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, then Foreign Secretary, on his way from Mexico to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly. He was detained at US Customs to be questioned over a mystery brown paste in a jar he was carrying. Could it be a potentially dangerous explosive ingredient? Rudd explained to the doubting customs officers, who had evidently never heard of it, that Vegemite was a popular spread in Australia, made from yeast extract, not unlike our own Marmite. Rudd's office was forced to seek diplomatic assistance to get his culinary delight cleared. Later opponents accused Rudd of using Vegemite's popularity to boost his own.
20. Several-foot-long blades disguised as walking canes
We will never know what dangerous, high-value or just plain silly items evade security and customs, but there's a growing inventory of what has been stopped in this century of airport surveillance. Dubai recently staged an exhibition of items seized by airport security. It included several-foot-long blades disguised as walking canes, and knives masquerading as pens. There were dummy handguns and and brass knuckles – the type gangs use in fights. The passengers caught carrying these items claim they needed them for protection.
21. Decorative Handguns
Then we have decorative ballistics, models of handguns, or bullets, used as fashion accessories. One traveller sported a live round as a souvenir from a war-zone. Another was stopped for having a tiny heater in his shoes. It was confiscated.
22. 20,000 pairs of counterfeit Christian Louboutin shoes
The definition of contraband extends to the fake. Recently 20,000 pairs of counterfeit Christian Louboutin shoes were seized by customs at the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport complex. They would probably have been sold online. The shoes, which arrived from China, all came with Louboutin's distinctive lacquered red sole. The estimated retail value of the haul was put at $18m. Customs seized them because Louboutin's is a trademark protected by US law. The shoes, said to be “very good counterfeits”, were probably destroyed.
Will the new technology eliminate contraband attempts?
For most of us the security check at airports remains a necessary nuisance. For those with something to hide, it will become harder and harder to evade the ever more intensive electronic scrutiny. One of the leading developers of new technology is US company Smiths Detection, currently supplying U.S. Customs and Border Protection with a miniaturized technology for fast and detailed analysis of unknown suspicious substances at points of entry.
Smiths makes handheld systems to identify suspected “illegal or threat materials”. Its latest products include an Infrared Spectrometer (FT-IR) which identifies material based on its light absorption, and a chemical identifier that uses a laser to identify solids and liquids through certain plastics and glass.
Another piece of body-scanning technology could make going through airport security much easier, and even eliminate x-rays, metal detectors, frisking and taking off your clothes. Alfa3, invented by Madrid-based physicist Dr. Naomi Alexander, uses the established technology of “millimeter wave imaging”, already deployed in airport scanners . But you don't need to stand still and raise your arms while it scrutinises you. All you do is walk by it.
It's a form of thermal imaging that detects differences in temperature between the body and objects that aren't part of the body. And without revealing any anatomical details. It can spot non-metallic objects as well, such as liquids and gels.
The Alfa3 is said to work to a higher resolution than existing systems, And would deliver far fewer “false positives”.
It is estimated the scanner will be able to process over 400 people an hour. Could it mean the end of those tedious security queues at the airport?