Anything To Declare? Airport Law Enforcement Officers Are Savvier Than Ever

By Richard Rabkin. Thinking of not declaring those gorgeous gold watches you bought on your recent visit to Europe? Considering supplementing your yeshivah or seminary allowance by becoming a courier for a cigarette-smuggling ring? If so, think again. Airport law enforcement officers are savvier than ever, and though this may be bad news for would-be smugglers, it could make for more efficient check-in security measures for the rest of us.  

Most of us have been there.

Traveling, either for work or pleasure, we are returning home. We did a little shopping — okay, a lot of shopping — and exceeded the maximum allowable purchase of duty-free items. Now we are  standing in the customs line, asking ourselves: Declare or not declare? According to experts like Avi Grossman, who is in charge of customs inspections at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport, the answer is obvious: Declare, declare, declare!

Grossman and his colleagues have spent years observing how travelers act when returning to Israel, which includes walking through the “Green Lane,” as the locals refer to the customs lane for people who presumably have nothing to declare. And he knows what signals to look for.

“People who have something to hide don’t walk slowly in the Green Lane,” explains Grossman. “They move quickly, in an effort to get past us as quickly as possible. Even if they wanted to act differently, they couldn’t. To mask their tension, they pretend not to notice the customs officials. They might speak on their cellular phones while passing through Green Lane. Some of them wear sunglasses to hide the expressions of fear in their eyes.”

Sometimes, though, it isn’t a person’s physical behavior that will raise suspicions, but their circumstances. Yoram Aharoni, another customs official at Ben-Gurion, relates how he caught two young Israeli girls attempting to smuggle cigarettes into Israel. “The girls left Israel for Moscow in the morning and returned that very evening. When two young girls travel alone to Moscow for such a short time, we find that suspicious,” Aharoni explains. To make matters worse, the girls weren’t exactly traveling light. “They arrived carrying large duffle bags, which is not the kind of luggage a young girl usually travels with.”

Aharoni stopped one of the girls, whose suitcase was filled with a hundred cartons of cigarettes, each one containing ten packs. The girl’s traveling companion initially slipped by Israeli authorities, but was later located and brought to the airport with her parents, who were forced

to pay a hefty fine that amounted to tens of thousands of shekels, since neither the tax on cigarettes in Israel nor the fine for smuggling them is cheap.

Perhaps, though, you’re thinking: Okay, that’s Ben-Gurion. Everyone knows the Israelis are the best when it comes to security. But since when do I have to worry about those sleepy-looking officials at my hometown airport in New York or LA or Toronto? 

Since now, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Working with psychologists, and borrowing a page or two from the Israeli airport security model, the TSA is developing new strategies for spotting terrorists, smugglers, and generally honest people who succumb to the temptation of lying rather than declaring their purchases when they’re in an airport. Should the TSA’s efforts succeed, passengers could see less invasive measures while checking in, but closer scrutiny in the customs hall.    

Someone Is Watching Avi Grossman has more smuggling stories up his sleeve than the average airport carousel has pieces of luggage. He recalls the time when approximately 30 American students who were in Israel for a year returned from a short vacation in Thailand. Nothing about their individual interrogations or luggage inspections gave anything away but, says Grossman, “They were each holding a bag with two or three bottles of alcoholic beverages in it, which raised my suspicions.”

Although it is perfectly legal for one person to bring in two or three bottles of liquor, Grossman theorized that outside the airport there was someone waiting to collect all the students’ liquor bottles. Thirty passengers carrying three bottles each would mean 90 bottles for this shadowy individual, which was certainly a violation of the Israeli customs regulations. Sure enough, an inspector waiting outside the customs area observed the American students hand over all the alcohol to a contact who was not on their flight. Israeli customs agents arrested the man, who received a hefty fine.

Another time, Grossman’s eye was caught by the incongruous sight of a seemingly massive young man carrying two very small suitcases. “When we opened the suitcases, we found out that they contained $2 million worth of gold jewelry. A search of his body revealed that he was wearing two belts that contained jewelry valued at another $2 million.” The young man is currently sitting in prison.

But even though Grossman and his crew do need a hefty dose of mazel to catch potential smugglers, they also have some solid intelligence techniques at their disposal. Sometimes they will receive a warning concerning a particular traveler before the airplane lands in Israel. Such a person will be followed from the moment he emerges from the plane — and yes, there are undercover customs operatives stationed at the baggage carousels, watching for suspicious behavior even before a traveler retrieves his luggage. Even if the person, who is often just a courier and not the actual mastermind behind the smuggling operation, thinks that he has

successfully passed through the Green Lane, he is mistaken. Sometimes, as was the case with the American students, the customs inspectors will try to determine who the leader of the ring is by waiting until the courier is outside. They will be arrested only when the smuggled goods have been delivered into the hands of the ringleader.

Israeli Customs Authority intelligence operatives will also compile profiles of people whom they deem to be suspicious, and store this information in their computers. Who qualifies for this dubious distinction? Prime suspects are people who travel abroad frequently for short stays. Of course, not everyone who travels frequently is a smuggler. Businessmen, schnorrers, and even journalists for Mishpacha might make frequent, brief trips abroad. If they are not stopped and searched every time they go through customs, it’s because Grossman and his team have determined that their business abroad is indeed legitimate — and noted that fact in the traveler’s computer profile.   


Eyes Don’t Lie  While keeping computer tabs on potential smugglers might be possible in a relatively small country like Israel, what options are there for law enforcement officials of countries like the United States — where some 90 million international travelers pass through the country’s international airports every year?

They might turn to someone like Marc Salem, a Yeshivah Torah Vodaath alumnus who went to college to pursue what he calls his “fascination with the mind.” After obtaining doctorate degrees in both cognitive and developmental psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford University respectively, and spending 20 years as a college professor, he turned his academic research in nonverbal communication to practical use by training police officers, secret service agents, and even Fortune 500 companies in how to spot liars.

Salem, who is also the author of The Six Keys to Unlock and Empower Your Mind, explains that the main ways we communicate with each other are not through words at all. As a good college professor does, he backs up his claim with a scientific study.

“According to A. Barbour’s Louder Than Words: Nonverbal Communication, verbal communication comprises only a small part of how we relate to each other. Here’s how Barbour breaks down communication: 7 percent verbal — words; 38 percent vocal cues — volume, intonation, and rhythm; and 55 percent body language — facial expression, posture, and gestures.

“Within three seconds of meeting someone,” says Salem, “we decide whether we like them or not.”

According to Salem, just as nonverbal communication creates immediate, powerful and long-lasting impressions on ordinary people in their everyday dealings with others, a law enforcement official trained in how to understand nonverbal communication should be able to

ascertain quite quickly if someone is hiding something. Although there is no “magic formula” for spotting liars, Salem claims that there is a palette of signals that, when grouped together and interpreted by an expert, can paint the right picture. He shared eleven of the most common signals that he has observed that raise flags that someone may not be telling the truth: 

1. Eye contact: either too much or too little hints at over-sincerity or over-avoidance. In addition, liars will often look away from the questioner as soon as they finish speaking.

2. A dry cough or cracking voice, which can be a psychological response to the discomfort of lying.

3. Hand gestures that seem to be more or less animated than normal.

4. Gestures such as scratching or stroking the chin, ear, nose, or the side of the jaw.

5. The voice changing to a slightly higher pitch or a more rapid speed.

6. Asking to hear the question again, a ploy that some people use to buy time to formulate a false answer. The truth does not require much thought.

7. Keeping one’s fists closed or arms crossed.

8. A slight blush to the skin from increased blood pressure and a sudden elevation in body temperature.

9. Contracted pupils, which can be caused by the anxiety that can come with telling a lie.

10. Tightening of the skin around the eyes, another sign that a person might be lying.

11. Shifting the weight from foot to foot.

Being able to spot suspicious body language or recognize anxiety-driven vocal patterns is just one part of the puzzle, though. The final, and perhaps most important, step is learning how to accurately interpret the clues. Salem calls this “the consistency tool.” [Read more in this week’s Mishpacha Magazine].

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  1. When I learned in Mir Israel, I was given the opportunity to bring cell phones in from England. I was not one of the luckier boys who came with cash to spend and so I agreed to the job. I was very nervous and actually did some of the things mentioned in the article such as talking on my phone in front of the officers and even stopping to ask them directions. In total I did the trip 3 times and I thank hashem that I was never caught.
    I would caution all parents that have sons and daughters in Israel. This is still going on today. If your child is spending money he/she doesn’t have or has disappeared a few times and is out of touch, follow through as they may be getting into a whole heap of trouble. Further more as I can attest, the people you courier for are often unscrupulous and sometimes dangerous. Please heed my warning.

  2. When you are young, or a teenager, this risks or the understanding that something is against the law is very hard to internalize. If a lot of people are doing it and everyone seems to act like its fine…its difficult to think that it really is against the law, just like stealing from a store which no one would do. I sympathize with #3 and I hope that people will stop doing this now they realize how terrible the consequences are.

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