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My fiance just returned home from Nigeria and he has been detained 4 days at Reagan International airport because he returned with electronic sonar hardware he used for his job. Customs has detained him at Reagan International Airport because he only has $2,000 of the full $4,500 they are requiring. A diplomatic person tells me he will have to take it back. What do we do?

This Diplomat told me that he has been helping him by allowing my fiance use of his cellphone. I asked a customs diplomat what if we cannot pay it can he still come into US and come home? He said because it is hardware he will have to take it back. I also asked customs to give me some sort of documents that shows why such a high amount. He said I would get a receipt with all the info after payment which makes no sense. My fiancee is a U.S. Citizen and his passport is valid. I cannot understand this.

He is here in Washington, D.C. at Reagan Airport. I had no idea who to contact and there's a 3 hour time difference

Yes he did go to Nigeria and he wanted to surprise me with an early return.

The phone number is to a man who says he is Mr. Edwards with the diplomatic office at Reagan Airport. I'm calling Reagan Airport tomorrow to investigate and report this.

Update 1: I have now talked to my fiance and he is in Washington, D.C.

Update 2: I did call Reagan Airport (Thank you Dorothy) Police Command. They told me to contact my local authorities and also to go to Secret Service.gov and file report. He said he thinks they'll be interested since I've recorded all calls, screenshot all text, logged all numbers. I also contacted the bank I was told to deposit the money into. I have them the name this "Diplomat" uses and the account and routing numbers plus name of account holder to verify. I was told info did match. They are contacting authorities in their area. She said account holder would be guilty of money laundering and fraud.

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    This doesn't make sense. If Customs decides to impose duty on something, they'll hold the item, not the person carrying it. If he is actually detained, something else is going on. – Michael Hampton Sep 27 '16 at 22:48
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    Reagan National does not have a U.S. Customs facility onsite for the inspection of International passengers. All passengers on flights to Reagan National from Canada, the Bahamas, Aruba and Bermuda must clear customs at the flight's departure airport. When the flight reaches Reagan National, all passengers will deplane into the Terminal in the same manner as domestic arriving flights. archive.mwaa.com/reagan/1269.htm – Giorgio Sep 27 '16 at 23:00
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    You are being scammed. – Andrew Lazarus Sep 28 '16 at 0:12
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    Can you please post a follow up answer of what actually happened. It is most certainly a scam, but it is very interesting how they got information about your fiance, and the fact that he was flying to Nigeria and was going to come back. How they found that you are connected to him and your information. Also it is not clear whether you have seen your fiance in person before (the statement of not seeing fiance sounds stupid, but there are enough desperate people who start dating/marrying people they have never seen before) – Salvador Dali Sep 28 '16 at 5:25
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    I did call Regan Airport (Thank you Dorothy) Police Command. They told me to contact my local authorities and also to go to Secret Service.gov and file report. He said he thinks they'll be interested since I've RECORDED all calls, Screenshot ALL text, Logged ALL numbers. I also contacted the Bank I was told to Deposit the money into. I have them the Name this "Diplomat" uses and the ACCOUNT & ROUTING NUMBERS plus Name of ACCOUNT HOLDER to verify. I was told nfo DID MATCH. THEY ARE CONTACTING authorities in their area. She said Acct HOLDER would be guilty of money laundering and fraud.. – Dianne Cruey Sep 29 '16 at 9:43
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No, the Customs cannot make you go back, and return the equipment.

What the Customs can do is one of the following:

  • Let you in with the item, optionally after duty is paid, if required. If you don't have enough money, Customs typically will hold the item until duty is paid, but they will not detain you.
  • Hold the item temporarily (for example, to analyze the content for drugs) - if clear, the item will be returned to you later;
  • Confiscate the item (and optionally detain the traveler) if the item is prohibited and was not declared;

What you describe honestly sounds more like a scam than a typical US customs operation. If the "Diplomat" follows up with you soon asking to send $2000 to "US Customs" through Western Union, please go to the police.

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    Thank you for THIS awesome list to guide me. I told my fiancee that DIPLOMAT sent me a Name with account and routing info. I discovered its to a FAMILY CREDIT UNION. I told him even IF I HAD $2500 I WOULD NOT SEND it as that Mr. Edwards as he calls himself is NOT GOING TO SCAM ME OUT OF A CENT. I will be up early tomorrow to make calls from all the comments and file reports where necessary. Thank you so much – Dianne Cruey Sep 28 '16 at 0:53
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    @DianneCruey Not "priceless" but more specifically 2500$ :p – Antzi Sep 28 '16 at 3:35
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    @Antzi nope, priceless. As soon as the $2500 were sent some other "fee" would crop up. – jwenting Sep 28 '16 at 6:26
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    @DianneCruey Please respond. How did you meet your fiance? Have you ever met him in person? – Revetahw Sep 28 '16 at 21:05
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    @DianneCruey: please report this to your local police, including the account/routing numbers, phones etc. This will help preventing other people from being scammed (as well as possibly recover some funds from the people who were successfully scanned). If you can do this BEFORE talking again to "Mr Edwards", this would be even more helpful, as the police might be able to trap him or collect the evidence necessary for the indictment. – George Y. Sep 29 '16 at 1:04
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To recap, with thanks to many commenters, there are a number of suspicious factors in this question:

  • Nigeria - a country well known for scams of this type. Not that there aren't many legitimate people and businesses in Nigeria, but it's a factor.
  • Customs does not detain people for days because of unpaid duty. Someone would only be held for days if they were accused of breaking the law. If he is accused of breaking the law, there are legal processes that are followed, formal paperwork produced, criminal charges filed, etc...
  • Reagan National Airport only has Immigration and Customs facilities for a handful of flights on private jets. If he was on a normal commercial flight into the US, he would have had to go to a different airport to enter the US and clear Customs, and so would not be at DCA at all.
  • People are generally not detained in airports for days. They usually are either sent home or transferred somewhere else.
  • A "diplomatic person" middleman who you do not know seems to be doing most of the talking. Have you actually spoken to your fiance?
  • Diplomats don't collect customs duty or detain people at US airports. That job is done by Customs and Border Protection.

There is a familiar scam called the Family Emergency Scam:

Scammers may pose as relatives or friends, calling or sending messages to urge you to wire money immediately. They’ll say they need cash to help with an emergency — like getting out of jail, paying a hospital bill, or needing to leave a foreign country. Their goal is to trick you into sending money before you realize it’s a scam.

We don't know enough to know exactly what is going on, but you should be careful. I would take steps to independently verify all information. Don't trust any phone numbers or information you are given by the people you are talking to. If they say he is being detained by US Customs and Border Protection at DCA, then look up the phone number for that office and call them yourself.

In the unlikely event that he has actually been charged with a crime, the authorities holding him should be able to confirm this fact; then you should hire a qualified criminal defense lawyer (or request a public defender) to advise him. If he has not been charged with a crime, then you should contact the police and not give any money or personal information to these people.

Out of curiosity, what are they asking you to do exactly? Presumably whoever is calling wants you to pay the $2500 immediately. What kind of payment instructions did they specify?

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    Chances are the phone number being called is written on a contact tag on the fiance's suitcase - this is where they often get the details from. – Luke Briggs Sep 27 '16 at 23:38
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    No the phone number is to a man who says he is Mr Edwards with the Diplomatic Office at Regan Airport. I'm calling Regan tomorrow to investigate and report this. – Dianne Cruey Sep 28 '16 at 0:54
  • I'm having all the NUMBERS tracked. Nine are off his luggage. – Dianne Cruey Sep 28 '16 at 0:58
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    @DianneCruey Luke probably means they got your number from the luggage. Now that it's exposed that there's a scam going on, the main thing is to figure out WHERE your fiancee is and whether he's ok. And of course whether he's involved in the scam or not (if he's not, where is he and why didn't he yet contact you to tell him he's delayed...). – jwenting Sep 28 '16 at 6:29
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    @jwenting he's not delayed; he is supposedly returning earlier to surprise his fiancee, remember? – phoog Sep 28 '16 at 15:33
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I don't want to worry or scare you, but— no, actually I do. I need to. You must be open-minded and clear about this, because the situation is incredibly suspicious. Let's sum up what we know so far:

  • Your fiancé went to Nigeria
  • Your fiancé came back "early" to "surprise" you
  • Your fiancé ended up at a non-existent Customs office, and claims to be detained pending payment of duty on some "hardware for his work" from Nigeria (despite the fact that a person would not be detained in this scenario)
  • You are being contacted by some "Diplomat"
  • The "Diplomat" describes a scenario in which your fiancé will not be released unless thousands of dollars are paid
  • No documentary evidence will be provided until the money is paid

Are you kidding with this? This is so obviously a scam. The only question is whether your fiancé is in on it. I have read in the news, on several occasions, about long-cons perpetrated by Nigerian scammers who went as far as marrying American women to gain their trust, then extract money from them in pretty much the exact same way.

Without knowing the details of your relationship (how did you meet? how long ago? and have you spoken to him over the phone as well as this "Diplomat"?) I am not going to sit here and declare that your fiancé has been lying to you the whole time, but I strongly recommend you think about it carefully.

In practice, of course, your first step is to contact the airport itself to confirm that the story is nonsense. Do not pay anything. Then contact the police, tell them the full story, and take things from there.

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    @camden_kid No. But perhaps we should consider migrating this whole question to Puzzling SE. – Revetahw Sep 28 '16 at 13:27
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    Couple con men arrange a marriage to an American, scam $4500 bucks and then move to Mexico living large for the rest of their days. Classic scam. – coburne Sep 28 '16 at 17:31
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    And please stop shouting. – Lightness Races in Orbit Sep 29 '16 at 0:11
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    @DianneCruey: I never said it was a fake post. I'm suggesting he may be a fake fiancé. – Lightness Races in Orbit Sep 29 '16 at 0:12
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    @coburne Maybe part of a longer game- 'fiancé' is 'released', lavishes gifts on her with some of her own money, other things come up, and before you know it she has lost her house, self-respect and trust for anyone. Sad but these things do happen. – Spehro Pefhany Sep 30 '16 at 11:21
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Besides the obvious red flags and inconsistencies in this particular story, here is another answer to address the generic case:

If a fee is required to bring back work equipment, this should be something that the employer of the traveler should deal with. Not the fiancee of the traveler.

If it is convenient, you can of course be the one to alert the employer that this problem needs to be solved.

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    If the person is self employed and he/his business does just have enough money to buy equipment, but not enough money or credit to pay for import tax on the relevant equipment... then that would of course be a different kind of red flag. -- As it is not mentioned in the question that he is self employed I will keep this answer up. – Dennis Sep 28 '16 at 14:40
  • Yes he is self employed. He bought sonar equipment for his work. – Dianne Cruey Sep 28 '16 at 21:40
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    @DianneCruey Hi. How did you meet your fiance? Have you ever met your fiance in person? – Revetahw Sep 28 '16 at 21:55
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    I strongly, strongly suspect he didn't buy sonar equipment personally and take it from the US to Nigeria. You're unlikely to know this by chance, but sonar equipment is a dual-use military/civilian good. The US Navy really wouldn't like foreign governments to get their hands on the good stuff. Your fiancé would have had an export license from the US Commerce Department. This would also prove to Customs that the equipment is returned, not imported, and no fees can apply. (Not that a random individual is going to get such an export license, though. Too risky.) – MSalters Sep 29 '16 at 0:28
  • @pnuts Electronics get VERY odd in some cases. the EAR limits "Examples of controlled commodities include, but are not limited to, lasers, radars, sonar systems, satellite components, computers, signal processors, cameras, centrifuges, fermenters, electron beam systems, fiber optics, GPSs, inertial navigation equipment, vacuum pumps, radiation hardened devices, semiconductors, hydrophones, telecom components. " and sometimes these may be non-intuitive. – coteyr Oct 3 '16 at 10:06
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I can't stress enough that this smells like scam.

The closes scenario that I could see happening are the following. Please note that your situation doesn't meet these, but I wanted to give you an idea of what may be "normal".

When someone comes in from an outside country carrying an item of large value, you should declare it using a form like this one: Customs Declaration. So long as items are declared then there is almost no way that CBP will detain a person. They will detain an item if the declared value is WAY off, or if a duty is due. They may also detain an item if that item is illegal. If items are declared then there is almost no way they would detain the actual person, even if the item is illegal. If the item is illegal they would either confiscate the item, or hold it till you leave the country and pay a fee. Depends on the item. Some items are illegal because of treaties and laws and no big deal is made over these. Others (like drugs) are a large deal, but again, if declared, the item is lost not the person.

When you don't declare an item, and it's found a few things can happen. If its normal stuff that just happens to be a high value, a duty is charged, and the stuff it held till the duty is paid. The person is allowed to go their own way.

If the stuff contains a controlled substance or item (doesn't mean Drugs, some things like fruit can qualify) then the item is confiscated, and generally a fee is charged. The person is not detained, but could face fines etc.

If the stuff contains items and it looks like your trying to smuggle in drugs, or other things. CBP will confiscate the items, and CBP will release the person. Even if you smuggled 900 lbs. of heroin in, CBP will not detain you. They will take the drugs for sure. Now what will happen is that the person will be release by CBP to other agencies like the FBI, or Immigration, etc. depending on what was brought in. AT this point however court dates are set, legal actions have been taken and things can get odd for the person because US law is followed, but generally speaking, so are the foreign laws. It gets weird, but you would be needing to contact an attorney. The state department (for US diplomats) will never enter into the equation. Foreign diplomats may. That's up to them, but usually not. Usually paper work, and what not takes over and either jail time or deportation happens.

At no time would the person or the item be allowed freely into the US if it looks like they were smuggling. CBP would detain the items and another agency would detain the person. US citizens would follow US laws around being charged with a crime, which means 24 hours to "initial appearance" (bail hearing).

So with all that in mind. I could see....

  • Guy gets "pulled aside" and told that his work equipment had a problem getting though customs, and he needs to pay a duty. Then he is given paperwork stating the total amount he needs to pay including fees, and where he needs to pay it. He is then released, and has to go to some middle of nowhere warehouse to pay his fee and duty and pickup his equipment. For the days and weeks it takes to get all the paper work straightened out Guy can freely move about the country and get what ever legal advise he needs.

  • Guy gets "pulled aside" and told that his work equipment contains something illegal. (Sometimes this can be very non-intuitive, specially with electronics) He is giving paperwork telling him what he needs to do to recover his items. He is then released. Guy can move around the country freely getting what ever help he needs to get his items back. Even if it means sending back to the originating country.

  • Guy gets pulled aside and told that his equipment is being used to smuggle drugs into the country. Guy is given paperwork telling him where the items are being detained (maybe not specifically, but a receipt is given). He is then released to the FBI. Because Guy is a US citizen, he must be charged and appear before a judge within 24 hours. Before that hearing, many things may be restricted. After the hearing the judge would have ruled, usually, on the validity of the case, and rater there is enough evidence to continue, and also made a decision about bail. From this point on, normal judicial rules apply. He's a prisoner, either on bail or in custody.

Remember above all, that if Guy is a US citizen (it get's a bit weird when people are not as different rules get followed in regards to their home country), he can not be detained, or denied access without due process. That process may suck, but without a hearing he can can not be detained for long.

Also, because he is a US citizen, on US soil, the state department won't touch it with a 10 foot pole. If anything happens it's a domestic issue, not a foreign one.

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