Monday, January 25, 2010

What should you do when the police bang on your window at 10 pm and scream for you to open the door?

That was the question that confronted a young woman in Mount Vernon, Washington on January 12, 2010. I’ll refer to her as Maria, which is not her real name.

She and her 2-year-old daughter had been watching the penguin cartoon “Happy Feet” when she heard a knock on the front window. She went to the window, pulled the blinds aside, saw a police badge being shown, and heard a man yell "POLICE! OPEN THE DOOR!"

Maria, frightened, opened the door. Two men in ski masks pushed their way in. One man grabbed the child and the other man pushed Maria onto the couch.

Did rape and murder then follow?

That such was not the case was due solely to what her ex-husband had taught Titan, the family pit bull, to do—to attack on command. Maria screamed the command. The man on top of Maria started to pull a gun but not before Titan raced out of a back bedroom and sunk his teeth into the man’s left leg. Both men then fled, with the dog close behind them.

In hindsight, Maria should never have opened the door to police impersonators, but how was she to know that they were fake police?


In such a situation, never open the door. Instead, call 911. If the men are the real police, rather than impersonators, the 911 operator can confirm that. And if they are not the police, a patrol car can be sent out to catch them.

Not everyone keeps a pit bull in the back bedroom, trained to attack on command.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Canadian border-crossing problems (Part III). Q&A.

After returning to the United States, I contacted John—an Officer with US Customs & Border Protection on Minnesota’s northern border. Some of my questions concerned the viewpoint from the Canadian side so he was kind enough to call some of his acquaintances on the far side of the border.

The questions that follow are about my nerve-wracking entry into British Columbia from Blaine, Washington.

1. When my license plate was photographed, did their computer show the name my pickup is registered in?

Every license plate is read and the vehicle’s crossing is logged each time you cross. However, the registration information is generated on only about 10% of vehicles at MOST. Myself and a few of the officers I work with have asked why this is the case and we've been told it has to do with the county/state the vehicle is registered in. Some counties report the registration information, some don't. From what I've seen, it's VERY hit-or-miss with what places do and what places don't. There's really no rhyme or reason to it.

2. Did the Canadians keep a copy of the hard drives on both my laptops, along with the files on my flash drives?

According to policy, no copy of the hard drive is allowed to be made. BSI (border search of information) is VERY regulated and we are only allowed to look at what is on the PC's, that's it. If something was to be found (i.e. child pornography, etc), then a case would be opened on you and all related evidence (the laptop in this case) would be seized and turned over to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for prosecution. That would be the only time a copy would be kept and that copy would be the actual PC. In short, no, no copies are ever made. [John refers primarily to US policy here, but it appears to be similar in Canada as long as all passwords are freely given and as long as nothing incriminating is found.]

3. Will the Canadians report a search like this to US Customs so one can be flagged when crossing back into the States?

No, Canada and the US do not communicate anything. There's a lot of red tape keeping us very separate from Canada Customs. The only time information might be shared is when an Officer on the Canadian side might call a personal friend on the US side to just give them a "friendly" tip. This is pretty rare and in my experience, only done when the person crossing is a real pain in the butt and just plain obnoxious. Nothing formal is ever exchanged unless done by a designated intelligence officer, in which case you would probably know because you've done something wrong (i.e., someone called in a tip that you were smuggling drugs back and forth, etc.)

The above answers eased my worries about what had happened while my computers and flash drives were out of my sight, but now I had more questions about border crossings in general:

LICENSE PLATE: When I come into the US from Canada, does your computer show how many times this car has come through? If so, over what period of time?

Yes, but only if the Officer decides to actually look at that information; it isn't presented unless solicited by him/her. As for the time period, sorry to tell you but it's forever. From the first day records started being taken until now and so on. I've seen crossing histories (which DO include international flights) as old as 20 years or so.

PASSPORT: Even though I travel with different vehicles, will the computer show how many times I have personally come through?

Yes, but just as with your vehicles, the information has to be solicited by the Officer in order to be viewed (which only takes a matter of seconds). As for the crossing history, the same applies here just as it does with vehicles... it's forever.

LIARS: On page 253 of HTBI, I mention an inspector who claimed he could spot a liar in 5 seconds. Was that hyperbole? What's your opinion on old-timers being able to spot a liar? (I would think that a few get through.)

This one is an interesting question. In short, yes, it's completely possible. After having worked at many ports of entry myself and having been in the service for a few years now I am able to pick out a lie pretty quickly. I talk to probably 150 people a day on average so over time it's almost impossible to not pick up a thing or two when someone's lying. Not to say I'm a 100% every time because I know that would just be foolish to think. Of all the Officers I've worked with, probably 50% of them (that being the percentage of them that actually care about what they're doing and are half-way serious about their job) could probably pick out a lie easily within the first 2 or 3 questions with no problem at all. I've even worked with a few guys that could tell you whether a person was admissible to the US or not (were criminals, etc) and would lie about it while that person was still sitting two cars back... and those Officers were almost always on the dot! Even if someone's lie isn't discovered within the first few seconds, if a guy asks enough questions the liar’s going to run out of answers eventually.

CARRYING CASH: I often travel with up to five thousand dollars in cash. Might this in itself raise any red flags?

As for leaving the country with cash, that's more reliant upon the location and what the "norm" is I would say. Where I am, I would think nothing of it nor would any of the Officers I work with, it's just too common. Even cash in the 10's of thousands really isn't a big deal. We have tons of farmers here and enough dual-citizens that worrying about lots of cash isn't an issue because it's just too common a thing. That said, anytime cash or any other "negotiable monetary instrument" in excess of $10k enters or leaves the country it has to be reported and recorded. That would warrant a secondary exam but only due to the paper work involved. N
othing more unless foul play is suspected.

At a larger or more "city-oriented" Port, the cash might be more of a concern, especially the closer to British Columbia you get. British Columbia is ground zero for the best marijuana to ever grace this earth some would say. I would venture to bet that the first thought to cross the mind of an Officer at the port of Blaine, WA (for example) would be that the cash was going to be used for purchasing pot, especially if that amount of cash isn't transported often enough to make it "normal" for that area.

To answer your question in short, though, no, someone wouldn't get sent to secondary based on that quantity of cash alone. The cash in conjunction to something else might ring a bell in an Officers mind whereas one of the two items alone might not have.

PASSWORDS: What would happen if I had a laptop with me and I refused to give the password? Would I be arrested? Would my name be flagged for any future visit?

I spoke to Canadian Customs tonight. They told me that if someone was to refuse to turn over passwords then the computer would just be seized and sent to Ottawa to be dealt with by a technician. If nothing was found after the technician unlocked it the PC would be sent back to the owner.

As for the flagging of the traveler, that would be completely up to the Officer at the time of the initial secondary inspection. The lady I spoke with tonight said that she might log something like that but as for flagging the traveler for the next time they came into Canada, no, she wouldn't do that unless there was a huge need to have it done. It isn't routine.
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Okay, readers, that’s it for now on Canadian border problems. However, if you have any experiences to relate, by all means post them here as a comment.

NEXT WEEK: What should a young woman do when police bang on her window and scream for her to open the door? (A true horror story that just happened in western Washington!)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Canadian border crossing problems (Part II)

(If you have not already done so, first read the January 4, 2010 entry.)

The woman who questioned me at the U.S. border was actually pleasant. What a big surprise that was! No questions whatsoever about laptops, storage devices, or if I had been near any small children. Instead, just the usual questions about where had I been and what was I bringing back with me. Then:

OFFICER: “How much money are you carrying?

ME: “Between four and five thousand dollars.”

OFFICER: “Why so much?”

ME: “ I was going to make a deposit in Port Alberni but I missed seeing the bank when I came thorough. It wasn’t all that urgent anyway and I was in a hurry to catch the noon ferry at Duke Point so I didn’t turn back.”

OFFICER: “Why do you have a bank account in Canada?”

ME: “I opened it years back, when I was having some printing done with Friesens in Manitoba. And by the way,” I said with a smile, while drawing my hand across my throat, “there’s no money to be made in self-publishing!”

The kind lady smiled and waved me on through.

Three comments about carrying cash into Canada:

1. It appears to be permissible to carry a substantial amount of cash, as long as the value is under $10,000 Canadian.

2. Tell the truth about which bank you will be visiting—specific details will give the officer confidence that what you say is true.

3. Decide beforehand how to explain why you have such an account. This may be because you often vacation in Canada, or because you think Obama is on such a wild spending spree that you expect the American dollar to fall below par with the Canadian dollar within the next year or two.

But meanwhile, what about the fact that the Canadians went through my laptops? Did they keep copies of my files? If I ever return to Canada, will they know I’ve been there before? If I use the same pickup, will that show up as having been in Canada before?

I posed those questions, and more, to a good friend who works with US Customs and Immigration at a border crossing in Minnesota. If you ever wondered what happens when you pull up at the border and hand over your passport, be sure to read next Monday’s blog:

Canadian borders crossings (Part III). Your questions answered!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Canadian border crossing problems—read this before you cross with a laptop!

I’ve entered Canada many times, always with two laptops, and never a problem until December 26th. At the Canadian border crossing (Blaine, Washington), a young Asian woman scowled at me in response to every answer I gave to her questions, especially when I told her I have never been arrested. (Apparently she thought there are only two kinds of travelers, those who admit they’ve been arrested, and those who lie about it.) I was told to park my pickup and enter the building—the dreaded “secondary inspection.” What followed was one the most miserable experiences I’ve had in recent memory.

“Give me your keys,” said an older, heavy-set officer, “and then sit over there.” From where I sat, my pickup was not visible. Eventually I was called back to the counter and the questions began.

“Why do you carry TWO laptops? Why are your keys connected to a Kubotan? How many flash drives do you have with you? Why doesn’t your wife travel with you? Are you going to be around any young children? What’s the name of the man you plan to meet in Ucluelet? Have you ever met him? No? Then how did you know about him? Why do you carry a Bible and some religious magazines, when you also carry two bottles of wine? (I quoted some pro-wine Scriptures at this point, which put an end to that line of questioning.)

In days gone by, I survived two interrogations by Generalissimo Franco’s Secret Police but this session with Canadian Customs and Immigration was even more depressing because I knew they were going to go through hundreds of my supposedly private files.

My Asus PC Eee, my backup Vaio, and the two flash drives require passwords. I was forced to reveal them. Then both the man and the young woman disappeared into a back room with my computers and flash drives and left me sitting out there alone with nothing to read and nothing to look at, for 55 minutes. That was the worst part.

True, I keep client lists, tax returns, confidential letters, and most of my pictures on a secure laptop at home that is never connected to the Internet and never leaves home. Nevertheless, there were hundreds if not thousands of files on those laptops and flash drives. Was this going to ruin all the work I’ve put into keeping my private affairs private? My mouth went painfully dry.

Finally, the man reappeared. He handed me the computers and flash drives and allowed me to leave. No “Sorry to bother you,” much less “Welcome to Canada.” But had they copied both hard drives? Would the U.S. Customs and Immigration be notified to check me out when I returned? I carried $4,000 in cash, stuffed inside a glove in the tool compartment below the rear seats. They hadn’t mentioned the money. Had they not found it, or had they taken it? If so, what recourse would I possibly have? I feared I was about to kiss four big ones goodbye.

I had planned to work on some new chapters of a book tentatively titled “How to Hide Your Identity and Protect Your Privacy (International edition)” but what if my hard drive was going to be copied again at the U.S. border? So far, the Canadians at the border crossing had failed to connect me to my Web site or my HTBI book (which I did NOT have with me). Result: I did no writing whatsoever and cut my trip short.

If you plan a Canadian border crossing with a laptop, keep this information in mind:

1. Carry only a “clean” notebook or laptop with you.
2. Answer every question truthfully.
3. Be prepared to give up all your passwords.

Or … leave your computer at home.

Or … cancel your trip.

A surprise was waiting for me when I returned to the ‘Promised Land’ but I’ll leave that information for next week’s blog. Stay tuned for Part II of Canadian Border Crossing problems!