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US Customs Export Control Says: I’m Screwed



If you’ve been affected by the same problem described here, please take a moment to complete this survey about the details of your shipments and returns. With enough information, we can find some patterns to explain what’s happening.

Help! This is very bad. Since sometime about April 26, nearly every international shipment I’ve sent has been returned by US Export Control, for unknown reasons. The packages come back with an export compliance sticker that says something is “missing”, but doesn’t explain further. I discussed the problem with the staff at my local post office, but they couldn’t explain it either, and said the customs information on the package looked OK to them. They also said that when an outbound package is rejected by US Export Control, there’s basically no recourse: the customs inspectors don’t respond to calls or emails about specific packages. In the staff’s words, “You just have to guess”.

All of the packages were shipped by US Postal Service’s First Class Package International service. I’ve not recently changed anything about the packages, their contents, the address labels, or the customs information printed on the label. I’ve previously shipped thousands of substantially identical packages internationally without incident. But not anymore.

TL;DR – I am completely unable to ship any international packages, and I don’t know why, or who to ask for help. The shipments never get out of the USA.

To put it mildly, this is bad.

The specific package shown in the photo contained a ROM SIMM and an empty plastic case for one of my electronics products. But most of the rejected packages contained a BMOW Floppy Emu – a disk drive emulator for retro Apple computers.

None of the returned packages had been opened, so there was never any time that an export compliance person looked at the contents inside the package, looked at the item description on the label, and decided whether they matched. The decision to return the package was 100 percent based on the information printed on the label, perhaps combined with information submitted electronically when the postage was purchased. But nobody at the post office seems able explain anything more than that.

There are some clues. Here’s a list of every international shipment I made between April 19 and May 6.

Date Destination Tracking Contents Status
4/19/21 Canada LW227139012US Emu Bundle, ROM-inator delivered
4/19/21 Bulgaria UC009977527US Emu Bundle in transit, in USA
4/19/21 Canada LW227139026US Emu Bundle in transit, outside USA
4/19/21 Germany LW227139349US Emu Bundle delivered
4/19/21 Netherlands LW227139352US Emu Bundle delivered
4/19/21 Italy UC009977717US Emu Bundle in transit, in USA
4/19/21 Switzerland UC009977725US Emu Bundle in transit, outside USA
4/19/21 Germany LW227139882US Emu Bundle delivered
4/19/21 Austria UC009977734US Emu Bundle in transit, in USA
4/19/21 Canada LW227140038US Emu Bundle delivered
4/21/21 Japan LW227159119US Emu Bundle delivered
4/21/21 Italy UC009981138US Emu Bundle in transit, outside USA
4/21/21 Italy UC009981141US Emu Bundle in transit, outside USA
4/21/21 Belgium LW227159502US Emu Bundle, ROM-inator delivered
4/21/21 Netherlands W227159516US Emu Bundle delivered
4/21/21 UK LW227159935US Emu Bundle delivered
4/21/21 Switzerland UC009981257US Emu Bundle in transit, outside USA
4/21/21 Finland UC009981265US Emu Bundle in transit, outside USA
4/23/21 Japan LW227178166US Emu Bundle, ROM-inator delivered
4/23/21 Canada LW227178705US Emu Bundle, ROM-inator, ADB cable delivered
4/23/21 Australia LW227178719US ROM-inator delivered
4/23/21 Canada LW227178722US Emu Bundle, SD card delivered
4/26/21 Canada LW227199020US Emu Bundle, Noisy Disk in transit, outside USA
4/26/21 Australia LW227199033US Emu Bundle delivered
4/26/21 Canada LW227199603US Emu Case, ROM-inator returned to sender
4/26/21 Italy UC009987745US Emu Bundle in transit, in USA
4/28/21 Canada LW227224665US Emu Bundle returned to sender
4/30/21 UK LW227242788US Emu Case, Wombat Case returned to sender
4/30/21 Sweden UC009995619US Noisy Disk, Daisy Chainer in transit, outside USA
4/30/21 Italy UC009995640US Noisy Disk in transit, in USA
5/3/21 UK LW227275605US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/3/21 Canada LW227275619US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/3/21 Australia LW227275622US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/3/21 Czech Rep. UC010000416US Emu Bundle in transit, in USA
5/3/21 Mexico UC010000420US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/3/21 Belgium LW227276035US Emu Model C, ROM-inator returned to sender
5/3/21 Germany LW227276044US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/3/21 Germany LW227276486US Emu Bundle, SD card, ROM-inator returned to sender
5/5/21 Canada LW227298552US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/5/21 UK LW227298566US Daisy Chainer in transit, outside USA
5/5/21 Netherlands LW227298570US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/5/21 UK LW227299116US ROM-inator in transit, outside USA
5/5/21 Australia LW227299120US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/5/21 France LW227299133US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/5/21 Switzerland UC010004885US Emu Bundle returned to sender
5/6/21 Ireland UC010007326US Emu Bundle in transit, in USA
5/6/21 Canada LW227312529US Emu Bundle, ROM-inator returned to sender

Almost all of the packages shipped prior to April 26 have been delivered, or have at least made it outside the US. The three from before the 26th that show “in transit, in USA” are misleading because they all have tracking numbers starting with the letters UC, which indicates a destination country where tracking normally isn’t available beyond the US border.

But almost every package shipped After April 26 is either still stuck in the US, or has been returned.

Something changed within a few days around or after April 26. The date of change was probably May 1 – roughly when packages shipped April 26 would arrive for customs processing. A new customs inspector employee? New inspection procedures or policies? New export control laws? Or maybe something changed with Shippo, the service that I use to print the address and customs labels?

Notice that the return label says more information is available at https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/ if you click on “Export Issues” under Consumer Help. But that section and that heading do not exist. I couldn’t find anything on that site to help explain what’s going on. Edit: see this 2018 archive.org backup of the uspis web site.

With no information and apparently no recourse, I’m starting to panic a little. For the time being I’ll have to disable all ordering for customers outside the USA, which is a large fraction of the total for BMOW. And I’ll have to contact all the customers whose shipments have already been impacted, or who’ve ordered and paid but whose packages haven’t yet shipped, and try to determine what’s the next step.

If you know anyone who works in any type of export manager capacity, who might be able to advise or consult with me on this, that would be fantastic. Or if you know anybody affiliated with the postal inspection service who might have insight into what’s going on, that would be great too. I’ll take all the help I can get to resolve this crisis.

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BMOW Inventory Restock

The BMOW Wombat ADB-USB input converter and the Internal/External Drive Switcher for Apple IIc are now back in stock at the BMOW Store. Head there to get yours now.

Wombat what? The Wombat is a bidirectional ADB-to-USB and USB-to-ADB converter for keyboards and mice, and was developed by Steve Chamberlin here at Big Mess o’ Wires. Connect modern USB keyboards and mice to a classic ADB-based Macintosh, Apple IIgs, or NeXT machine. Or connect legacy ADB input hardware to a USB-based computer running Windows, OSX, or Linux. No special software or drivers are needed – just plug it in and go. For more details, please see the product description page.

The Internal/External Drive Switcher for Apple IIc is a convenience option for Floppy Emu owners with a IIc, and makes life easier when when emulating a 5.25 inch floppy disk drive for that computer. It provides a simple way to select whether the internal floppy drive or external Floppy Emu will appear as 5.25 inch Drive 1, which is the only bootable drive on the IIc. More details are here.

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The International Shipping Mess

International package shipments through the US Post Office have seen major disruptions in the past months thanks to COVID-19. It’s slower than a sad mule hauling a sack of letters. The delays have caused lots of headaches for BMOW customers and for me. To be candid, it’s a mess. It’s hard to understand, because some packages still get delivered quickly, but others are delayed for months with no updates to their tracking info.

The problem seems to be that the post office uses cargo space on commercial airlines, but since COVID-19 hit, international commercial airline traffic has been reduced to almost nothing. Huge stockpiles of outbound mail are piling up in warehouses, waiting for space on an outbound flight. The US Post Office has started shipping some packages by sea again, returning to the methods used decades ago. Even after the packages reach the destination country, they face additional delays due to lack of staff and extra safety precautions.

As of today, June 23, I estimate that at least half my international shipments are still experiencing major delays, and many shipments from 2+ months ago still haven’t been delivered yet. Most people have been patient in the face of these delays, but I’m approaching a decision point regarding how to handle severely delayed orders. It’s not my fault that COVID-19 has upended the international shipping landscape, but it’s not the customers’ fault either, and I can’t expect them to wait forever. Soon I may have to look at offering tens of thousands of dollars in refunds for missing shipments, which would be disastrous. My method of self-insurance anticipates that packages will occasionally get lost and need to be refunded, but it’s based on an expected loss rate about 1%, not 50% or more. Sending replacement shipments to everybody isn’t really an option, and the replacements would likely experience similar delays.

In the face of this shipping environment, I’ve considered temporarily halting sales outside the USA. I’m very reluctant to do that, because international sales are almost half my total order volume. And many international shipments continue to arrive as quickly as before, typically in a week or two. I haven’t been able to find a pattern that explains which shipments will be delayed, except that shipments going east (mostly Europe) and south (central and South America) are more likely to be delayed than shipments to Canada and shipments going west (Asia and Australia).

Another alternative might be to require customers outside the USA to pay for a premium shipping service like FedEx or DHL. Those services are slower than before, but should still be much faster than the regular post office. But the cost would be very high, perhaps $50 shipping fee for a typical package to Europe. For many orders, that would make the cost of shipping higher than the cost of the goods themselves. The complexity and hassle for me would also increase. My current custom-made shipping solution is tightly integrated with the US Postal Service and relies on living close by a local post office. I’ve done a few experimental shipments with DHL, and the time and care needed to send a single package is much greater than with the post office. Still, this may be the best option from among the unappealing options that are available.

If you’re one of the customers who’s been impacted by this, I’m very sorry for the delay, and thank you for your continued patience.

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Sorry, Europe. International Shipping Woes

The Covid-19 virus has disrupted pretty much everything, including shipping of BMOW hardware. The impact on international shipments to Europe has been especially severe. Typical post office delivery times to Europe have exploded from roughly a week pre-virus to 1-2 months today. Shipments to Canada and Asia have also been delayed substantially. It’s very frustrating for everybody involved.

As of today (May 5), most of the Europe-bound packages that I’ve shipped since mid-March have yet to be delivered. Of all the shipments to Europe sent between March 12 and April 25, a whopping 81% are still in transit and haven’t yet been delivered. The most recent tracking information for many of them says “Processed Through Regional Facility: SAN FRANCISCO CA INTERNATIONAL DISTRIBUTION CENTER”. Many packages have been stuck with that same status for over a month.

What’s happening? Are the packages really still in some San Francisco post office warehouse? The tracking info provided for First Class Package International mail is imperfect, and sometimes it’s not updated further after the package leaves the United States. The packages may not necessarily still be at the San Francisco distribution center. In the past I’ve had packages get stuck for several weeks in the customs inspection of the destination country, and that might be what’s happening here.

Sadly there’s no way to get additional information on delivery status. US Postal Service First Class Package International shipping is the least expensive international delivery method, and normally it’s reasonably fast, but unlike FedEx or UPS or DHL there’s nobody to call and no meaningful recourse to track a delayed package. While it’s frustrating, there’s really no option other than to wait.

If your package is one of the many stuck in this limbo, then please accept my apologies. Thank you for your patience. And know that in the worst case if your package disappears permanently, I will replace it for you.

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BMOW Store Trouble

Yesterday’s upgrade to PHP 7.1 has broken the BMOW store checkout process. You can add items to your cart and authorize your payment, but the final “confirm payment” step leads to a blank screen. The payment never gets processed, and the items remain in the shopping cart. Please bear with me while I sort this out… UPDATE: It’s working now.

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Crazy Fast PCB Manufacturing

I finished the redesign for my Apple IIc Drive Switcher PCB on Monday morning, and submitted the Gerber files to Elecrow on Monday at 11:25 am. Friday at 5:20 pm I held the finished PCBs in my hands. Only 4 days for manufacturing and delivery. From China. According to the tracking info, my package took just 17 hours to travel from Elecrow’s Shenzhen facility to my doorstep in California. Total cost for everything was a mere $29.96.

We live in a crazy world, where a completely custom and intricate item can be manufactured on the other side of the planet and delivered to my door in 4 days, for the cost of a pizza and beer. Thank you Elecrow!

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