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FCC/Customs Problems for "Grey Market" Importers!
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(Friday, August 10, 2001 - 12:24 EDT)

Some recent news indicates it could be pretty risky trying to import non-FCC approved electronics into the US!

We've just become aware of a change in U.S. Customs practices that may have a severe impact on the import of grey-market digicams into the U.S. market! First though, some background on "grey market" products:

So-called "Grey Market" goods have been a significant part of the photo industry for years, since long before digicams came into existence. Simply put, a "grey market" product is one that's been imported through unofficial channels from the country where the manufacturer intended for it to be sold, to another country. (The U.S., in our case.) This often results in lower prices for the product when it's resold, since the foreign (usually Japanese) price doesn't include the costs of translation (manuals and menus may be in Japanese), U.S. technical support, maintenance of the U.S. repair facilities, etc. Depending on the product, buying grey market may or may not constitute a good deal for the consumer: Many companies refuse to perform warrantee service on grey market goods, so you need to be able to get the gadget back to its country of origin for service, or have some other alternative for service.

We've personally always been leery of grey market goods, at least when it comes to complex products like cameras. We confess that we have at least one grey market lens in our camera bag, which we bought from a reputable dealer who offered their own warranty service. We figured a lens would be unlikely to require service, and if it did, it's a fairly straightforward mechanical system that a large dealer's shop could reasonably be expected to handle on their own. Cameras are another matter though, particularly when you consider the possibility that repair will likely require access to electronic sub-assemblies that aren't commonly made available for sale by the manufacturers.

Still, a lot of people in this country have routinely bought grey market cameras and used them with good results. We think it ultimately harms the industry, since at least some of those people will be calling the US tech support lines, receiving help that they haven't "paid" for, since none of their purchase dollars went to supporting the U.S. organization. - But that's up to the individual purchaser, it isn't our position to moralize about how people should spend their money.

In the current market for digicams, there are a lot of small operators making good money by importing cameras from Japan or Europe and selling them on eBay or other online sites. We just learned today though, that a change in U.S. Customs practices could result in a very nasty shock for these folks, with possible significant financial losses and even legal exposure!

The change is that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has apparently convinced the U.S. Customs Service to begin vigorously enforcing FCC compliance on all imported products. This means that any imported products may be impounded by Customs if they don't carry the required FCC indicia (A special logo or mark, often molded into the plastic camera case.) It sounds like this could result in very substantial financial losses, if a number of cameras are involved.

As part of their new aggressiveness, the FCC is apparently also stepping up their pursuit and prosecution of persons or organizations found to be selling non-compliant electronics. If true, this could mean very substantial fines or other legal problems.

We don't know for certain about the FCC's prosecution of violators, as we don't know of any specific cases. (So treat that part of this article as hearsay at this point. - If any readers know of any such cases, email us at hotnews@imaging-resource.com.) The part of the story about impoundment of cameras is very real though: One of our contacts at a camera company reported that a camera shipped from their Canadian branch to the U.S. organization was impounded for a time until they could produce the documents proving that the unit actually had the appropriate approval. (And this was a case of shipment between two units of the same company, not a typical import arrangement.)

Note too, that it doesn't matter if an apparently identical model of the camera is being sold in the U.S. with proper FCC approval: If the specific unit in question doesn't carry the FCC type-approval indicia, it's considered non-compliant.

We pass this along to alert any of our readers who may be importing cameras themselves - Until now, this has been a pretty safe way to make a little money, but it looks like the ground rules are changing drastically, so you may need to consider other business approaches!

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