[Firefly] Nuts & Bolts of the ‘Verse – Smuggling Tricks of the Trade

Discourses on the workings of the Verse, for those as might be looking to spend time there online.

Smuggling Tricks of the Trade

The Customs Agent.

Overworked, often underpaid. Unpopular with the locals. Doing a difficult, sometimes dangerous job.

The enemy.

But still a human being – and subject to greed, vanity, confusion, weariness, and being overwhelmed.

Here are some time-honored, and some brand-new, techniques for getting around Customs.


Palm Grease – Eyes Shut

Bribery has long been a part of the smuggling game. It can be argued that the job of the customs agent is designed to foster bribery; the traditional arrangement for colonial customs officers is that they receive a percentage of the fines that they levy. While this is intended to encourage diligence in the job, the resistance that many customs agents encounter can mean it is actually easier for them to gather a modest amount (just enough to keep the home office content) while accepting bribes for their laxity.

Bribes can take many forms, from cash right through to a percentage of the cargo. (In some standing arrangements, part of what is smuggled is actually merchandise for the customs agent.) In some ports the bribes are so structured that printed booklets are available listing them. (Politely presented, of course, as “harbor fees”.) But smugglers would do well to keep in mind that bribery is best pursued with discretion. If an agent’s underlings are present they may expect a cut of the given, or may be able to blackmail the customs official as witnesses. If goods are transferred, it may be advantageous that they be presented as contraband that has been seized.

If the agent’s superior is making an inspection tour, the agent of course can’t accept a bribe or any other form of gratuity while being watched; they may even be forced to violate a long-standing agreement by performing their job as instructed and taxing or seizing cargo. Where they are able to avoid that, the smuggler can arrange a discreet delivery of what they would normally have coming to them. (And seized cargo may be discreetly returned after the regional inspector has left.)

Palm Grease – Ears Open

Another very effective application of bribery is to purchase information. Sun Tzu said, “It is better to pay one spy than to outfit an army of one thousand”, and information about a custom inspector’s whereabouts and schedule can be worth every coin fronted, tenfold.

Other useful information is the location of detectors in the customs screen around a world. Such information can exploit any gaps in coverage or where individual sensors are malfunctioning. (In one sector, payments to the crew maintaining the sensors resulted in some very large gaps indeed, as needed. And there are tales of the sensor maintenance crew actually being part of the smuggler’s delivery network.)

Run, Runner!

American moonshine runners have long used souped-up vehicles to get their illicit cargos past the “revenuers”. These very fast vehicles, under the guidance of skilled and daring drivers, allowed the ‘shine runners to evade the officials while leaving them in the dust. (Some of these drivers went on to become noted stock car racing drivers, putting their field experience into their craft.)

For large shipments, “bait cars” were sometimes used. When the car carrying the shipment sets out, so do one or more other vehicles to draw the attention of the revenuers and confuse the issue. The drivers of these other cars (often youngsters wanting to prove themselves as shipment drivers) lead the cops on a merry chase; if they get to the county line they are safe to brag of their exploits, if caught they merely get charged with joyriding. After the police let them go (perhaps with a fine, or a few days jail time) they get their cut of the take from the booze run.

Running from customs officials is effective with a fast ship and knowledge that the tax agents cannot readily call in reinforcements ahead. But sometimes just having several vessels to confuse the issue is enough to overwhelm the customs system, especially if there is some “cry baby” confusion over identification.

Threes, Eights – I Always Get Those Mixed Up

The miscount is a handy tool for smuggling in plain sight. Let’s say you have a hold full of perfectly legal whajamagadgets. You declare 300 – but there are actually 380, clever stacking making more look like less. Since whajamagadgets are legal, and checking the count would involve strenuous work, most customs officials will accept the count and the import tax on 300, leaving the other 80 with a much better profit margin. And if the agent actually does an accurate count, well, that 8 sure looked like a zero on the paperwork.

The Skunk Screen

In our time, urban police sometimes have to deal with “stinkers” – street people who maintain themselves as foul-smelling so that police are reluctant to put them in their patrol cars. Putting a smuggler’s cargo in proximity to something stinky or otherwise objectionable is a time-honored practice. (As is using one smell to conceal another, such as hiding drugs in shipments of coffee.) For the smuggler’s purposes the “stink cargo” doesn’t actually have to be rotten, but anything that would make a customs official reluctant to stick around for long. (Though some smugglers might not agree, customs officers are human and prefer to avoid noisome tasks like anyone else.) Strong industrial chemicals, requiring breathing gear to inspect, are a favorite stink cargo.

There are rumors that some ships are kept in so squalid a state as to make anyone reluctant to come aboard, let alone a customs inspector. (It is unclear if this is actually a smuggler’s tactic, or just a general lack of hygiene.) But it is not necessary to go quite so far – judicious use of airtight hatches should allow the crew to be isolated from the stink while still allowing an aversive gust to waft out to greet the inspector opening the hold.

The Honey Trap

Where a custom agent’s predilections are known, it can be very helpful to have an attractive crew member around as a distraction while customs inspections are carried out. Customs agents are used to resentful and begrudging cooperation; to have a cheerful and attractive person showing them around can cause them to miss infractions. (Though the crewmember should be careful not to overplay the role, as the agent may start to believe that they are offering themselves as a bribe.)

At the very least, the Honey Trap makes for endless opportunities for teasing the crewperson who gussied up and provided the honey.

I Guess They Sent The Deluxe Model By Mistake

The hold is full of washing machines. No-nonsense, practical, durable models, suitable for the hard life on the outer worlds.

The customs agent senses there is something questionable about the shipment, even goes so far as requiring the crew to open many of the boxes to be sure there isn’t contraband packed into the washer’s drums. But finds nothing, and begrudgingly collects the import tax on the shipment as stated.

The customs man was right – there was something inside the washers, but not as he assumed. On each of the units, the control mechanism was augmented with a state-of-the-art control chip, possessed of logic functions and memory far in excess of what is needed to run the washer. Since the chip is redundant, even if the unit is powered up it will work as usualonly a time-consuming and painstaking test on each washer would reveal the higher technology.

Once delivered, the higher-tech chips are removed and sold for use in other devices. And the washers? Since the more powerful chip was redundant, they can be sold normally after it is removed.

As I Understand It, It’s Pretty Cold Outside

Space is unfriendly. It’s cold and airless and harsh. You can’t last long in it without protection. So it’s easy to get stuck in the rut of thinking human possessions should primarily exist in human-friendly environments.

But there are wonderful possibilities for hiding cargo on the outside of the ship. Besides the normal range of upgrades and modifications many tramp freighters are a hodgepodge of add-ons and customizations, especially where they have had to make do with non-stock parts. Many ships little resemble the stock model that flew out of the shipyard long ago.

So a customs officer is faced with a bewildering array of unique vessels; while scans can help, it would take personal (suited up, with spacewalk) inspection to determine if that buffer panel is really a buffer panel or actually the cover for a smuggling cavity. Or laboriously clambering about the outside of the vessel, when she is grounded.

Removal of the cargo can occur during the course of routine maintenance/repairs, or with the cooperation of a shipworks.

(All of this is predicated on the smuggled cargo being of a sort as not to be affected by cold or vacuum; while it is possible to concoct a heated airtight compartment on the outside of the ship, such environments have a way of failing when you most need them. Unusual warm spots on the hull may also show up in scans.)

Exterior smuggling pods may be rigged to allow them to be jettisoned at the approach of a customs ship, perhaps to be retrieved later.

Throwing Darts

One definition of smuggler is “one who carries goods surreptitiously”. The word to focus on here is carry – the assumption that the smuggler has the items on person or in ship. However, in some situations it is effective to throw the cargo, like a dart at a board.

A skilled pilot can line up a trajectory and speed that will assure a bundled and released cargo will arrive at a point in space at a particular time. This will allow the ship to be “clean” at a check point; the cargo can be retrieved beyond the checkpoint, to complete the delivery. (A timed or signal-activated beacon will help make recovery easier.) Conversely, a trusted associate can retrieve the cargo with another ship, somewhere beyond the customs screen. (The pickup coordinates can be sent to the retrievers, encoded in a mundane message.)

Throwing Darts shares planning considerations with The Drop and Drones, below. Each has the advantage that, should the cargo be encountered by authorities, the delivery ship may be provably far away and not easily associated with the seized cargo.

The Drop

A cargo may be parked in a particular location, for pickup by the same ship later or retrieval by another ship.

The location may be deep in the Black, or near/on a planetary body. Deep-space drops require careful dead reckoning of the coordinates and the use of a beacon. Drops on moons may more readily be observed and monitored, but offer the advantage of precise map coordinates for retrieval. A popular drop point is on the edge of or within an asteroid belt; a cargo is hard to distinguish from asteroidal bodies even should someone happen by.

Drops are particularly useful where the local authorities have approval over what ships bring in goods. The ship making the drop may not be on the approved list for delivering even non-contraband items; the local pickup ship carries the cargo in the rest of the way (with forged documents showing the cargo as coming from an approved source).


Throwing Darts and The Drop both have the advantage that they are cheap to pull off, requiring no equipment other than a low-power beacon. Where equipment and engineering skill are available a drone may be tinkered up, essentially a small remote-control or preprogrammed delivery ship. (Though “ship” may call up a misleading image, as of a miniature space vessel. The drone may, but does not necessarily, enclose the cargo; drones can take the form of a cobbled-together thruster and instrumentation package attached to a bundle of cargo.)

“Missile” drones are particularly useful for small, high-value cargoes that can stand high acceleration/deceleration. As the drone is able to move far faster than manned vessels it can flash past a customs interdiction zone before authorities can react, applying sudden massive deceleration to bring it to a stop at the pickup point.

As noted, the investment of materials can cut the profit margin for a cargo; drones must be considered as single-use. As they are powered they are more likely to be detected in flight – though their high speed can make them very difficult to intercept. NOTE: As many of the technologies involved in drone construction could also be applied to military missiles, the Alliance has proven willing to expend an extraordinary amount of resources to apprehend those responsible for constructing effective drones.

Hey, Nice Crate

Sometimes it’s not the cargo, it’s the container. Where embargoes are in place, the fine art of ship smuggling can come into play. It cannot be done often in the same area, but can lead to some lucrative scores. Ship smuggling also requires some good local contacts, to help the ship’s registration disappear so the vessel can reappear under a new name. (A cooperative local official who can forge a record of the ship’s having departed can also be helpful.)

Load the ship up with a legal cargo (or just barely on the contraband side to allay the suspicions of the customs officer, who would appreciate his usual bribe), make delivery of the cargo, sell the ship, then the crew disappears into the local population to make their way off-world individually. (A skeleton crew for the delivery run helps simplify things.)

Abandon All Hope

Not really a smuggling technique, more of a way to play the system against itself. To avoid paying high import taxes, clever importers will send an order (through a throwaway company) for cargo – but they split the order through two different, widely separated ports, then fail to pick them up. Abandoned shipments typically get auctioned off after a set time. The importer buys the cargo at auction, at a reduced price that more than covers the import fees.

Such a practice is something of a gamble – what’s to stop someone else from buying the cargo instead? But those who use this technique cleverly tip the odds by making it only half a cargo – the other half, without which the first half is not useful, is at a different port of entry and part of a different auction. Again, a bit of a gamble, but really who would bid against you for 5,000 left boots?

Jumping Ship

It is not unusual for crewmembers to sign on for one run, or to more informally “jump ship” whenever they like the looks of a port. (And have gotten paid.) This practice lends itself nicely to smuggling people – captains cannot force crew to stay aboard, and if it later turns out that the person who left was locally undesirable the captain can express shock and dismay that the crewperson misrepresented themselves.

Please, I’m Ticklish There!

With small nano-assembler manufactories (highly controlled, and themselves excellent contraband cargo) able to construct most of the popular illegal drugs, there are few instances where the classic body-cavity smuggling is worthwhile. One small cargo worth the effort is genetic material – improved forms of crops or livestock – or better designs for artificial organs. The Alliance embargo on improved livestock makes even a small sample of genetic material a very valuable cargo indeed.


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