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Exclusive: Filipino shipping agent escaped jail time after 225k un-taxed cigarettes found in container she arranged

A Filipino shipping agent has been fined and sentenced to home detention after customs found more than 225,000 un-taxed cigarettes in a container she arranged to have imported.

Lita Lee Christiansen, 66, has also gone by the names Lita Lee Zaragoza, Lita Lee, Lita Jao Lee, and has used the name "Alicia" to avoid debtors, customs says.

She faced charges of obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception, using forged documents, possession of unauthorised goods, making a false or misleading statement, disposing of risk goods, defrauding customs of revenue, making erroneous or defective import entries, and disposing of customs goods.

Christiansen admitted to all of the offending and supplied investigators with considerable evidence when her home was raided in September 2017.

She was sentenced to 12 months' home detention in the Auckland District Court, was ordered to pay MPI and customs $250 each at $10 per week, and was banned from undertaking any work for a period of 18 months - especially import work - when she appeared for sentencing in November. 

RIPPED OFF

Dozens of people told Fair Go in 2016 that they were ripped off by Christiansen after they paid her to import or export items. Many said their items never arrived, or that they attracted unexpected fees during shipping.

Customs has confirmed she never held a broker licence, and instead "utilised the unsuspecting customs brokers by providing false information to them."

Court documents obtained by 1 NEWS detail a "premeditated and sophisticated" scheme run by Christiansen between 2013 and 2017, where she used the identities of un-knowing Kiwi Filipinos to avoid customs fees and MPI inspections - while also unwittingly allowing high-risk and un-taxed items into the country.

Christiansen operated an unregistered business - 'L&L International' - where she took money from New Zealand Filipino residents to arrange the import of 'Alisbayan' boxes from the Philippines, and also exported items.

'Alisbayan' boxes are crates sent from the Philippines to Filipinos who have moved to another country.

She arranged her clients through informal Filipino community message boards and Facebook groups, and charged clients between $150 and $280 for each box they imported.

The Crown estimated she received about $296,670 from customers for importing 1586 boxes between 2013 and 2017.

In May 2017, customs officials inspected a shipping container in Christchurch which was arranged to be brought into the country by Christiansen under another Kiwi Filipino's name.

FORGED DOCUMENTS

The NZ Customs officer at Christchurch Airport.
The NZ Customs officer at Christchurch Airport. Source: Google Streetview

The person whose name was on the container later told customs they had no idea their details were being used in this way, and that they had never signed any of the related documents or declarations themselves. The documents had been forged by Christiansen.

The container was declared as being filled with "unaccompanied personal baggage" items belonging to a single person - clothing, household items and other personal effects - but inspectors found boxes inside addressed to multiple people.

The boxes containing cigarettes were addressed to two Filipino shops in New Zealand - the Filipino Dairy Store in Ashburton, and the Filipino Mart in Addington, Christchurch - and never reached their destination.

Christiansen was using the identities of recently-arrived Kiwi Filipinos to exploit a Customs and Excise Act clause which waives fees for new residents who import personal possessions. Christiansen made a profit in this way.

Two crates containing 225,180 cigarettes were found inside the container - 11,259 packets - as well as undeclared animal products like pork crackling, with an unpaid duty and GST value of $201,900.

Christiansen arranged for the importation of 16 containers under various Kiwi Filipinos' names between 2013 and 2017, but only one of those containers was ever intercepted. Customs believed it was likely the other containers also had restricted or un-taxed items inside.

Christiansen admitted during interviews that she had no idea what was actually inside the boxes, and charges were brought against her by both customs and the Ministry of Primary Industries in 2017.<>

BLATANT DISREGARD

In sentencing on November 30 last year, Judge P A Cunningham described the offending as "premeditated and sophisticated in nature" and added that "there was a blatant disregard for the risk that any or some of these items may have presented in terms of the New Zealand economy".

The judge said given health issues and the fact she wasn't working, Christiansen was unlikely to reoffend. 

Christiansen threatened TVNZ with court action if her sentencing was reported.

Shipping containers on a wharf.
Shipping containers on a wharf. Source: Pexels

Customs Investigations Manager Bruce Berry warned people to only arrange shipping through commercial customs broker services.

"This was a premediated and deliberate act of non-compliance over an extended period of time, which has impacted on a number of innocent parties," Mr Berry said.

"Ms Lee showed no regard for the individuals and was motivated by greed."

Mr Berry said there are a number of export consignments handled by Ms Lee which are still being held by freight forwarding companies - some several years old.

"Customs would encourage those individuals whose goods were handled by Ms Lee but who have not received notice their goods have been shipped to contact us by email on feedback@customs.govt.nz or call 09 9285410 and leave a message ... an investigator will then contact you."

- ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ANNA BURNS-FRANCIS

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Lita Lee Christiansen
Lita Lee Christiansen Source: Fair Go