Wednesday, September 29, 2010

AES tops DMV as most-aggravating government entity


If you ship a package internationally, and the contents are valued at $2500 or more, you are legally obligated to record your shipment with AES (automated export system). This is true for all shipments -- personal, small business, corporate, etc. OK, so no problem if recording the export were easy. Unfortunately, AES is the most backward, bureaucratic, aggravating, and time-wasting entity that I have ever dealt with as a business owner.

I first must register online with AES and create an account (understandable, but still a turn-off. Since the data is ostensibly for census, it could be reported for each transaction without knowing the sender's intimate details). Oops, my old AES account from years ago is no longer active and I cannot create another account with the same name. How can I reactive the old one? The only way is to fill out a paper form and fax it to AES. No online form, no phone call. It must be a fax, and then I have to wait for someone from AES to call me. OK, fine, that's done. Now I can enter my shipment details, right? Nope, my original AES account was registered with my social security number. AES doesn't used SS numbers anymore. I must apply for an EIN (employer identification number) from the IRS. OK, luckily the IRS has an online form, and it "only" takes 10 minutes. OK, now am I ready? Nope, the AES account must be "transitioned" from the old SS number to the new EIN number. I first must create another AES account to administrate the change from the original SS to the new EIN accounts. Meanwhile every time I create a new account with AES (new password for old account, admin account and new account), I must create a 12-character password with six non-repeating characters, numbers, and special characters that does not contain any dictionary words. The form conveniently offers to print out your password since their is no hope of remembering such a thing. Great security. Tell users to print their password -- on a networked printer?!

After registering my original account, I had to study for a quiz. That's right, a quiz. AES will not let users enter shipment details until they pass a quiz. Can you imagine FedEx requiring customers to pass a quiz so they can ship packages online? Good grief! OK, finally, I have my EIN account setup, quiz passed, etc, etc. It's a good thing I did this in preparation for a large transaction that I will have coming up in the next few months. My account will work in November, right? No, actually the 12-character password must be changed once every sixty days or else the account is suspended. How do I re-enable it? A fax. Yes, the only way to re-activate the account after 60 days of disuse is to send another fax and wait for a call back. Holy Hell!

OK, I've got my account reactivated, everything is in place, and I am ready to enter shipment details. Here we go. The form is divided into seven parts, and each part has about 15 fields. Some of the fields are easy, like my name. Some of the fields require me to determine the "schedule B or HTS number" for the items in my shipment. These numbering systems attempt to codify all commodities in the world. And since this is a US government system, you can be sure it is updated to reflect the latest technology and trends. Searching the HTS for meaningful product designations can easily take 30 minutes. It's also very unlikely that a first-time user would choose an HTS number that is even remotely correct. The AES included schedule B search engine is truly an insult to all search engines: "spaces are not allowed in search queries."

So basically, it's going to take between 2 hours and half a work day to simply record the package details with AES. I hope the package will not be going to Canada. There is an exception for packages shipped to Canada, but then a NAFTA form must be filled out.

Anyway, I've pretty much vented enough. Here are some various approaches to the situation:

1. Charge international customers more, or raise prices generally to account for the additional time wasting that AES causes.

2. Refuse international orders.

3. Split shipments into packages that are each valued at $2500 or less. This might be illegal, but I am not sure.

4. Ship international packages with the US Postal System and enter the correct (over $2500) value, but then choose "NO EEI 30.37a", which indicates the value is less than $2500. For some strange reason the system will accept it, and I have never heard of people having problems shipping stuff this way. The system might depend on USPS clerks checking the value manually, and they never do this because they are almost always overwhelmed by handling an international shipment.

5. Lie about the value, so that it is less than $2500.


  1. Hey, ended up at your blog via Hackaday to look at your fire extinguisher keg project, ran across this article while browsing through your other projects.

    RIGHT ON. I FRIGGING HATE AES TOO!!! I have dealt with every single problem you outlined. I've faxed them numerous times as well for a plethora of different issues......geeze, what a Charlie Foxtrot. The first time I called their "Customer Service" line and they told me I needed to 'fax' something, I chuckled and asked them if they were joking....nope, can I scan it and email it as a .PDF or something.....nope.....FAX!?!?! WTF. Ah, and the wonderful quiz, I think I have a Certificate of Completion shoved in a desk drawer somewhere I printed up as a joke with the intent to frame and hang on my office wall. Oh....and the password.....that nugget of joy is a mind bending nightmare I get to relive every 60 days when they require it be changed.

    Anyways, great projects, and I completely identify with your disdain for AES too. :-)

  2. Will, I'm glad to hear that I am not the only one who is amazed at how terrible the AES user experience is. I imagine that large companies must dedicate entire employee schedules for dealing with the export/census data. Insane!

  3. I sit here waiting for my AES admin to for the 3rd time in the last 12 months to enable my account since my password expired. I don't ship often enough but when I do I need AES. #&#%#&*@#*%^@@^* ! stupid government. It took me three days to figure out how make a template so my packages get through customs.

  4. Yikes. Have you ever worked with the health care industry? "Fill out this form (pen and ink) and I'll need to make a copy (on paper) of your health insurance card ..." Ick.

    As for passwords, if you haven't already, try a password safe. It's like a roll-o-dex for passwords. One master password gets you in, then you copy/paste passwords into your forms. Most safes will auto generate passwords as well so you don't end up with "Password01" for all your entries. Plus you don't have to remember them.

    As far as shipping stuff, the problem works in reverse as well. My pal had trouble getting 20 pairs of skates shipped from Europe. It's amazing what you can do with paperwork.