Fake brand watches, imitation sneakers by the fashion designer Alexander McQueen, real python leather boots and a can with forbidden anabolic steroids: Jens Ahland from the main customs office in Cologne piled up next to him everything the investigators found and confiscated in packages from abroad: “I recognize counterfeit shoes meanwhile often the smell “, says the customs officer.

"The cheap glue just doesn't smell good - as if you had worn the shoes for a year."

The customs officers in Cologne and elsewhere have plenty to do. Because the boom in online trading, spurred on by the corona pandemic, ensures that more and more consumers are also ordering goods directly from China or the United States with one click. According to a study by the Institute for Retail Research (IFH) in Cologne, foreign online providers achieved sales of around 7.1 billion euros in Germany in 2020.

In the coming weeks in particular, there will be another flood of parcels through customs offices across the country: Black Friday bargains and Christmas gifts that people all over the world have ordered. Consumers are not always aware of where they placed their order. In the IFH survey, almost every second respondent (48 percent) stated that they had unconsciously ordered goods from abroad. The value of these unplanned imports totaled 4.1 billion euros. For comparison: the goods deliberately ordered by online shoppers abroad only had a value of 3 billion euros.

This can easily happen to inexperienced shoppers when, while surfing the Internet, they come across a German-language site with cheap offers and - perhaps blinded by the cheap offer - do not pay attention to where the supplier is based.

Annoying mistakes are easy to make

Such mistakes can be annoying and expensive.

Because customs not only look for counterfeits, violations of the species protection agreement or prohibited drugs - they are also responsible for the taxation of imports.

"Many order something in China and are surprised when they have to deal with customs and then have to pay sales tax or even customs," says Ahland.

In fact, the rules for imports were tightened in the summer. Until the end of June, there was a duty-free limit for shipments of less than 22 euros. This no longer exists for imports from non-EU countries since July. In other words, for practically all of these orders, import sales tax and consumption taxes for goods such as alcohol or tobacco must be paid. From a material value of more than 150 euros, there are also customs duties. Many parcel services also charge a flat fee for handling taxable shipments with the customs authorities - Deutsche Post currently around 6 euros.

The consumer advice center North Rhine-Westphalia has calculated what the current regulation can mean when buying an inexpensive mobile phone case for 7 euros from a dealer in China, the United States, but also in other non-EU countries such as Great Britain.

In addition to the 7 euros, there is an additional 1.33 euros in import sales tax and often the service fee of the parcel institute.

In the end, the price more than doubled: to 14.33 euros.

Anyone who buys products with a price of 150 euros or more also has to pay customs duties.

According to consumer advocates, a surcharge of 12 percent is to be expected for clothing, and up to 14 percent for monitors.

Some supposed bargains lose their shine in this way.

No wonder that orders from abroad are scary for many online shoppers.

In a survey by the trade research institute ECC Cologne, 55 percent of those questioned said they would abandon the purchase if they realized that the seller was from abroad.

Sometimes the only problem is figuring it out.

Often - but not always - a look at the dealer's imprint will help.

The customs officer Ahland has also set up a simple rule of thumb for himself to avoid such pitfalls.

"If the delivery time is more than a few days, I'll be careful." This is often an indication that the dealers are located a long way away abroad.