Is there a foolproof method for importers or consignees to maintain confidentiality of identifying information listed on shipping manifests? Unfortunately, the short answer is “no.” While an importer or consignee may request that US Customs treat its identifying information as confidential, the infinite number of variations of this information (e.g., spelling of company name) precludes confidentiality for each possible variation. There are, however, steps that importers and consignees can take to minimize risk in this area.
Under federal law, the public may collect manifest data at every port of entry. Moreover, reporters may collect and publish names of importers from vessel manifest data unless an importer/shipper requests confidentiality. Specifically,
[a]n importer or consignee may request confidential treatment of its name and address contained in inward manifests, to include identifying marks and numbers. In addition, an importer or consignee may request confidential treatment of the name and address of the shipper or shippers to such importer or consignee. 19 CFR 103.31.
As many importers and consignees have learned, however, confidentiality is not assured even CBP grants such a request. A bill of lading may often contain a variant of a company name, and if that variant is not included on the confidentiality request, confidentiality will likely not apply to the information on that particular manifest. For example, if the John Smith Corporation requests confidentiality for its corporate name, and a manifest lists “J. Smith Corporation” or “John Smith Corp., Inc.”, confidentiality would not technically apply since these names were not within the scope of the confidentiality request.
Nevertheless, the trade may take steps to mitigate this. To ensure the broadest confidentiality exemption, an importer or consignee may consider including in the confidentiality application:
- Every variation of the names that has been used previous shipping documents
- Likely variations of the name
- Misspellings of the company name
- Any D/B/A or A/K/A previously used
- Names of sister companies, including those in other countries
- All company addresses
Even if an importer or consignee diligently follows these suggestions, confidentiality is not 100% guaranteed. One incorrect keystroke by someone entering data in a document somewhere in the supply chain can result in a “new” variation of a company name that is not covered by a grant of confidentiality.
US Customs and the trade have had discussions about the shortcomings in this process. Perhaps that is why CBP has for the time being disabled an online form used to make confidentiality requests (NOTE: requests can still be mailed to CBP as specified in the regulations). To tighten up this process, one possible solution is to leverage IRS/EIN numbers instead of relying on guessing at spelling of names.