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International Maritime Bureau (IMB) launches new NVOCC Code of Conduct
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The ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has established a register for Non-Vessel-Owning Common Carriers (NVOCCs). The purpose of the register is to improve anti-fraud standards and to encourage higher standards by providing a mechanism to recognise participating NVOCCs that adhere to a minimum standard of anti-fraud measures in their operations.
For the purposes of the scheme an NVOCC is defined as “a company that issues bills of lading and assumes the role of the carrier of the cargo.” Joining the IMB scheme does not relieve an NVOCC of its obligation to register its company or activities with the local authority concerned, for instance the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC). It is relevant to point out to our readers that the ICC’s and the IMB’s definition of an NVOCC is specifically ‘Non-Vessel-Owning Common Carrier’ whereas other organisations, such as the FMC, the World Shipping Council and the TT Club, define an NVOCC as a ‘Non Vessel-Operating Common Carrier’.
According to the IMB, NVOCCs issue more than 90% of all suspect bills of lading identified in its database. Suspect bills of lading are those which have false contents, including the incorrect vessel, dates, description of the cargo, container numbers or parties. They are presented to banks in order to commit fraud, money laundering, illegal capital flight and to bypass sanctions.
REGULATION IS NECESSARY
Whilst it is acknowledged that there are many NVOCCs that operate to high standards, the simple fact cannot be ignored that there are some that do not. This sector is unregulated in many countries and the standards of trade knowledge are very variable. The result has been that bills of lading are issued by them and financed by banks posing a risk of fraud or money laundering for banks.
The objective of this initiative is to impose a greater degree of accountability upon NVOCCs. It is hoped to increase the essential role played by the bill of lading. At BIFA, from the communications it regularly receives, it is clear that many people do not understand the key threefold role of a bill of lading, and in particular the potential for it to be a ‘negotiable’ document, giving the holder title to the goods. One point that Bifa has emphasised for many years, and which this latest initiative also highlights, is that information declared on a bill of lading has to be accurate. It mirrors the relevant information from the Master bill of lading issued by the physical carrier.
As stated in the opening line of this article the IMB is opening a register of NVOCCs around the world. The scheme is voluntary, but it does intend to differentiate between those traders who wish to demonstrate their expertise and those who do not. NVOCCs will be required to provide their full contact details, including physical business address and the full names of two directors (designated persons) who will assume responsibility for the NVOCC following its joining of the register.
The ICC and the IMB have written a Code of Conduct detailing acceptable business practices to be followed by NVOCCs when issuing and processing bills of lading. NVOCCs seeking registration with the IMB will be required to sign the Code of Conduct valid for one year. In addition, NVOCCs will be required to pay an administrative fee for registration. The identity of all registered NVOCCs will be published on a website administered by the IMB. It should be noted that the website will not include information on designated persons.
HOW TO BE COMPLIANT
The IMB NVOCC Register is backed by an online course designed by the IMB and run by the ICC Academy, which specialises in trade-related online training (https://icc.academy).
The agreement includes a requirement for NVOCCs to promptly answer questions from the IMB regarding a bill of lading issued. If an NVOCC is unable to satisfactorily explain a query regarding a bill of lading issued by it, or there is some evidence that the document contained false information, it will be recorded as a ‘strike’ in the IMB’s database. Two such ‘strikes’ within year will result in the NVOCC’s removal from the Register, unless it can demonstrate that it has put procedures in place to ensure that these errors are no longer repeated. Suggested corrective actions include sending staff on training courses and close monitoring of their work.
The very broad definition of an NVOCC has to be borne in mind when taking this new proposal into consideration. In effect, any forwarder issuing a house bill of lading is likely to fall within the scope of this registration scheme and could therefore join it. Like many such voluntary schemes the registration requirements are relatively low and currently there does not appear to be a substantive mechanism to ensure compliance.
However, any scheme aiming to improve standards is to be welcomed and membership of the scheme should be regarded as indicating an NVOCC’s commitment to meet minimum acceptable standards relative to issuing essential trade documentation papers. It is hoped that this will be beneficial to the shipping and freight industry and will surely reduce potential exposures to fraudulent activity in the supply chain.