The Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) just released new guidance, snappily titled “Guidance on Due Diligence to Prevent Unauthorized Transshipment/Reexport of Controlled Items to Russia,” which attempts to reveal ways in which U.S. exporters can detect whether a purchaser is sneakily trying to buy things not for itself but for the bad guys in Russia. This, of course, is a laudable purpose, not just for the Russians, but for the many other countries and entities that know they can’t directly buy certain export-controlled goods and have a straw purchaser do their dirty work. But, sadly, most of the advice for sniffing out secret Russian intermediaries is about as useful as the secret decoder rings that used to be found in cereal boxes.
Here it is:
When inquiring into the ultimate destination of the item, an exporter should consider e-mail address and telephone number country codes and languages used in communications from customers or on a customer’s website. The exporter should also research the intermediate and ultimate consignees and purchaser, as well as their addresses, using business registers, company profiles, websites, and other resources. … Furthermore, exporters should pay attention to the countries a freight forwarder serves, as well as the industry sectors a distributor or other non-end user customer supplies.
Particularly risible is the advice to pay attention to the “email address and … languages used in communications from customers or on a customer’s website.” Because, of course, if you’re trying to hide the fact that your acting on behalf of the Russians you’re going to put up a website in Russian, email from a .ru domain, and say “Nyet” when asked if you’re secretly working for the Russkis.
It’s not quite clear why BIS mentions these factors — which may from time to time catch a really stupid Russian intermediary who slips and starts babbling in Russian — rather than more reliable red flags. The most frequent indicators that you’re dealing with an imposter is a purchaser who appears to have no clear understanding of, or use for, the item he or she is seeking to purchase. Small purchasers that your company has never dealt with or who say that they are simply a reseller should set off alarm bells. And here’s a personal favorite: Google Maps Street View is your friend. If you track down the address in Amsterdam and see that the purchaser of a controlled accelerometer is a bicycle store or a car repair garage, well, your work is done.