Update: How to Avoid Unnecessary Brokerage Fees

I’ve written previously on the Step-by-Step process for saving yourself money on brokerage fees, which can amount from a few dollars to (much more common) paying the entire value of your package over again. (For the Step-by-Step on HOW, Click HERE to read my previous blog.)

What Exactly IS Brokerage?

To quickly re-iterate, brokerage fees are fees charged by your shipper (UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc) to clear your package through customs. The problem is in many cases, your brokerage charges are much, MUCH more than the actual duties and taxes.

Very often, the fees are not broken down when you pay at the door, so many people actually think they’re paying taxes to the government and there’s nothing they can do about it.  Next time you get a package, and before you agree to sign and pay for it, ask for the detailed receipt of the fees, or call your shipper and ask for a breakdown while the package is in transit. Alternately, check over your old receipts.  You’ll see you could have saved a lot of money.

How Do I Avoid Paying Brokerage Fees?

To avoid these fees, recipients are able, by LAW,  to “Self-Clear” or “Self-Import”, thus saving potentially a LOT of money. The trade off;  your time. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it. But in most cases, I’m able to self clear a package in about an hour; including travel time to our airport area in Calgary.

I’ve gotten quite good at the self-clearing process now , having done it a few times. As a result, I’m hearing a lot of new excuses and deflections, that the shippers are hoping will have me throwing up my hands, throwing in the towel, and just agreeing to their exorbitant fees.

Here are the most common excuses, and how to successfully deflect them.

1. “Oh, you can’t self-clear now, because we’ve already cleared it for you.”

Untrue. The shipper is attempting to coerce you into paying a fee for a service you did not ask for, likely don’t want, and can easily do yourself. You were likely never offered or even told about any possible alternatives. I think this is wrong. It’s negative-option billing.  I’d probably have a lot less of a problem with brokerage fees if I got a phone call or an itemized list of the fees, taxes, duties and brokerage and could make an informed decision about whether it’s worth it for me to pay it before it’s at my door. In most cases, it’s NOT.

Here’s a list of recent (non-commercial) packages I received, what UPS in my particular cases was going to charge me, and what I ended up paying on my own: (keep in mind different goods, from different countries are all brokered and dutied at different rates; these are my personal experiences)

Women’s clothing/accessories: Approx total value: #$200 UPS Brokerage + Fees: $22.37 Customs & Taxes using Self-Clearance: $7

Women’s jewelry: value $30 UPS Charges: $22.37 Customs & taxes using Self-Clearance: $4.50

Vitamins: value $200 Brokerage from UPS: $80. Duties & Tax using Self-Clearance: $1.15

Coffee: Value $45 UPS Charges: $41.68 Duties and taxes owing using Self-Clearance: $0 (outrageous!!)

Check your invoice before you agree to pay at the door. Your shipper may be charging more than the Government.
Check your invoice before you agree to pay at the door. Your shipper may be charging more than the Government.

So no matter what they try to tell you, stand firm and demand to speak to a supervisor if you need to. They MUST give you the option of self-clearing if you ask for it. It’s your right. I spoke to a CBSA official who told me, “Shippers have no right to hold your package ransom,” adding, ” it seems some shippers’ brokerage and self-clearing policies are meant to confuse people and get them to give in.”

Even UPS admits it must allow you self-clearance.  Their Media Relations department tells me, “It is a CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency) policy which allows casual importers to clear their own goods. It is not a policy that can be changed by UPS.Regulations for importing and exporting are controlled by various government departments.”

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) policy allows casual importers to account for their own goods directly with the CBSA.  In order for the customer to self-clear outside the port of arrival, certain conditions must be met:

-The customer must be a casual importer (non-commercial).

-The shipment must be low value ($2500 CAD or less) and not manifested.

-The customer must be willing to go to a nearby Customs office where Courier Low Value Shipments Program clearance is performed.”

If you need to, invoke this paragraph above on the phone.

2. “We can’t e-mail you the paperwork. You have to come pick it up.”

Yes, they can. They may not WANT to make it easy on you, and would probably rather you felt the cold sting of having to make that extra stop at their office in person to pick up a copy of your paperwork, but they can certainly e-mail it to you and WILL if you insist strongly enough. (And by law they have to give you access to it). The shipper (again, I most frequently deal with UPS) has an electronic copy of your waybill/packing slip/invoice in their system. It’s about a 1 minute task to email it to you. Insist. Again, ask for a supervisor if you must. I have yet to be denied this request by a supervisor, even if a call-taker did. As an aside, they seem much more happy to FAX you the papers. If you still have this relic, go for it.

3. This is a “Dutiable/manifested/cargo controlled shipment and is not eligible for self clearing. You need to wait for the port of entry to contact you before you can self-clear”.

Ummm, no. Likely more double-speak designed to discourage you from self clearing, or perhaps a confused employee. If your shipment is a personal (ie non-commercial) package, you can always self clear it. Insist on receiving a copy of the invoice/packing slip/bill of lading by email, no matter what they try to tell you about the shipment, its status, or what you can and can’t do with it. UPS recently tried to convince me they had some new-fangled system in place and I needed to wait for a representative of the Government of Canada to contact me, and send me the paperwork (also called a Port Form or a “B-15”) before I could self clear. I believed that to be false, so I called up Canada Border Services. They told me that was, in a word; bunk. Non-commercial shipments can self clear at any time. The government is not involved. Your shipper has to provide you with a copy of the paperwork. You do NOT need to wait for the government to do anything. Can you imagine if the government had to approve every parcel coming into the country, do the paperwork for you, and call YOU at home to say it’s ready. HA! No. Again, escalate to a supervisor if necessary, and if they still won’t help you, ask for the paperwork, ask for the package to be held for pickup, and take care of business on your own.

The needed B-15 form. You get a copy of this when you've paid your duties & taxes. It's your packages 'get out of jail free' card.
The needed B-15 form. You get a copy of this when you’ve paid your duties & taxes. It’s your packages ‘get out of jail free’ card.

I recently faced this excuse, and went straight to UPS’ Media Relations Department for the answer.  Here it is verbatim: “An individual can slef-clear any of their personal shipments and UPS has a process which allows for this.”

4. Well, it’s already on the truck for delivery.. soo its too late…”

In a word, it’s NOT. Shippers can and will change the package’s status in the computer, and have it returned to the warehouse to await your pickup after self-clearing. If the driver doesn’t get the message in time, and they DO try to deliver it again, you can refuse it at the door, and say you’ll be self clearing it. It’s never too late.

In a pinch, you can stick the delivery sticker/notice on the door and write “Hold for Self Clearing” on it for the driver to see, as I’ve become aware many drivers will just repeatedly try to re-deliver the same package without checking for an updated status.

UPS tells me, “It is considered too late to self-clear a package when you have already agreed to have the courier clear the package for you.” So if you have not actually agreed to this process in writing, you’re good to go.

5. Any other excuse that results in them basically saying NO to self-clearing, or making it hard for you to self-clear

Shippers charge a LOT of money for brokerage. In the last week alone, I’ve avoided $140 on 4 packages. That’s a lot of money out of the shipping company’s pocket. Imagine if everyone did that? They’d be hooped. So, in my experience, they try to make it hard,  unreasonable or just downright troublesome to get the package self cleared. Case in point; on another recent occasion I had two nice customer service reps from the shipping company promise to e-mail me my paperwork. Both times it never came. After a lot of phone time and a supervisor, I got it by both e-mail and fax.

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Need more help? The Government of Canada WILL HELP you deflect brokerage fees:

If the feds aren’t charging you money, why should the shippers? The Government of Canada has been very helpful to me in providing information about importing and self-clearing packages. Check out their website.

You can also call and speak to a real live person: 1-800-461-9999 (make a selection from the 4-option voice prompt, then you can hit ‘0’ for a real person)

To self-clear your packages in Alberta; there are (sadly for rural Albertans) only 3 offices where you can complete your paperwork: Calgary, Edmonton, and Coutts Border Crossing. For other offices across Canada here’s the list.

Worth noting; as of April 2013 the Calgary office has re-located to (a new street not yet on some mapping services!) It’s at Unit 162, 175 Aero Way NE, Calgary, Alberta T2E 6K2. Complete details on the new location HERE

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So why do I go to what seems like a lot of trouble to self-clear my packages?

  1. The Money. There’s a LOT of money to be saved. I’d rather have it in MY pocket.

  2. The Principle. I hate that shipping companies can charge you such fees, and basically hide them as duties and taxes. Most people never look at the invoices when the pay the COD fees at the door; in fact they’re usually wrapped up in plastic sleeves tapes to the box. To me this is a clever way to gouge customers. I also resent the fact they don’t offer you a choice in advance to do this yourself.

  3. It’s not really that much trouble any more. I’ve gotten good at it; and the above deflections I get from shippers really make it kind of like a game now. I want to win at this game; and I do. And now I get to share the tools with others, in hopes you can all save some money too.

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57 thoughts on “Update: How to Avoid Unnecessary Brokerage Fees

  1. Thank you soooo much for taking the time to post this!
    It was so helpful and the process was super easy. I had no trouble at CBSA or UPS. In and out of both places within half an hour.
    Your instructions were so easy to follow. When I first got the call from UPS saying that I could not self clear because I had to go to Winnipeg where my package was arriving, I thought for sure I was going to get duped. But after doing some research, I came across your page and was so happy that you are also from Calgary.
    Thank you again!

  2. Thanks so much for posting.
    I just self cleared for the first time today.
    I was a little nervous at first since the other people there seemed to have larger purchases and all I had was a $52USD dress to clear. But it was really easy, the agent who helped me was really nice.
    UPS tried to charge me $41.68
    I ended up paying $2.82.
    Cheers.

  3. Hello! Thanks for all of this super-helpful info. A quick question: I’ve spoken to UPS, and received the right invoice– but how/when will I know that my package is at the UPS warehouse…? Will the tracking status tell me? I’d hate to drive up there and discover the package isn’t on site. Thanks again!

    1. Packages usually arrive at the warehouse at end of day when delivery is attempted. If you want to be sure, call the shipper or look online. The status should be accurate.

      1. Ack! Sorry to be a pest, but have you ever encountered this UPS status update? I notified them of my intent to self-clear, rather than waiting on delivery attempts. And today this: “EXCEPTION: We currently have the package. The receiver requested clearance by a non-UPS broker.” No location specified; last location Richmond BC. (So, the paranoid implication being that my package was halted in BC, not Calgary.) Any thoughts? Thank you so much!

      2. Get on the phone and demand to speak to a supervisor. Be firm. They try to avoid this and dazzle you with BS. Ask them where it us and when it will arrive in your area. You have to be firm because they get mad they’re losing money for you self clearing and they try not to help you.

  4. LOL, thanks. I’ve been on the phone for 90 minutes (still on) receiving all manner of nonsense explanations. First, they said it was a ‘high value package’ (not true), then they had ‘already cleared it for me’ (!!!), and then I had to present myself at the port in Richmond. Now they say they have to ‘call the port of entry’ in order for the package to be forwarded to YYC. Unbelievable! Along the way, the manager offered to waive the brokerage fees but insisted that they clear it for me… that would be great if I could believe it would actually happen!

  5. So, now I’ve accepted their offer to ‘waive the brokerage fees’ because after 2.5 hours on the phone, escalated to three different people (!!!), they refuse to move the package on to Calgary. We’ll see if they make good on this promise. I think my error in this process was this: I informed them of my intent to self-clear instead of waiting on a delivery attempt here in Calgary. Better to wait for the package to get to the local warehouse. Boo UPS.

    1. I agree. I’ve always attempted self clearing *after* delivery has been attempted. Strangely I think that makes it easier. Waiving brokerage fees is a good win for you. Congratulations.

      1. Cheers– and thanks again for your advice. Tell me, how would you have dealt with this situation? The only reason I informed them of my intent to self-clear so early is because they called me: I had to refuse their brokerage service or accept the fees over the phone. Am I missing an option here? It’s hard to know how I could have waited for delivery, though that is clearly the right thing to do.

      2. It’s muddy. I’ve never been able to pin the shippers down about what the proper process is, or how best to go about self clearing. The Federal Government just says they can’t make you pay for that service, without giving you the option to opt out. But try explaining that to a CSR over the phone. The bottom line for me is, hold firm, and escalate to a supervisor if necessary — and it usually is.

        You might have to spend some time on the phone, or wait an extra day or two for the package; you just need to decide if it’s worth it for that particular shipment.

  6. I have had a package shipped to me from Fed Ex (they left it at my door and I saw it when I came home) and then I got an invoice in the mail for the fees afterwards. This didn’t even give me an opportunity to refuse the package from the delivery person. What to do in this stuation?

      1. It is indeed outrageous! The crazy part of it is that it was for an item that was “backordered” from the US company I ordered from (I ordered 2 identical items in different colours as the website claimed both were in stock and shipping would be free). Then I had one of them sent through regular postal service (no charges applied and it arrived at my door fine, although later than the time it took for the FedEx one to arrive), and got notice from the company that the other was being backordered and would be sent soon. When I got that one, I saw that it was sent through FedEx (I guess they wanted to rush the order to me) which of course I did not know about or consent to in advance. They left it at my door (I may have signed for it though, but do not recall.. but if so, the delivery person never said a word to me about any bills or fees when he handed it to me), and then I got a bill in the mail not too long after. I looked it up today and saw this is a common practice with FedEx to send the bill later.

        My item was $31.50 USD. My Fed Ex bill is a total of $24.50. This is absurd. Customs duty is $7.16 (I thought NAFTA is supposed to apply and we don’t get charged duty from the US for something that cost so little? Not sure though), HST is $5.58 (which doesn’t even compute with the exchange rate – it is so much higher than it should be!), and “advancement fee” is $10.00

      2. Hi, I recently also had a gift package shipped to me from UPS, my daughter opened the door and they gave it to her. No signature no nothing. Three weeks later I received a bill in the mail for fees and duties.$98.46. I called them and they are refusing to credit these fees. It was a gift, I have no business paying the fees which I did not agree to in the first place. Any suggestions? If I knew, I would have used your self clearing options or not accepted the parcel in the first place. I am terribly upset!

      3. If you get nowhere with UPS, you can call customs about completing the appropriate paperwork for a refund of duty and GST. You will still need to pay the brokerage fees with UPS.

        Incidently, UPS should have called about clearing the package. At that time it could have been refused.

  7. Oh, and they also charged me HST of $1.30 on the advancement fee!

    I sent an email to complain to the company that shipped this to me because they chose to ship through FedEx without notifying me in advance, and they also did not indicate the item had to be backordered before sending it out (their notice about that even said no further S/H fees would apply). I have asked them to pay the fees.

    it does say this on the FedEx website so I think I may just ignore the bill if the company does not voluntarily agree to pay for it:

    Please note: As per the contract of carriage with FedEx®, the shipper is ultimately liable for any duties and taxes assessed on the shipment. If the recipient refuses the package or the recipient or third party FedEx account holder refuses to pay for duties and taxes, the original shipper will be billed for duties and taxes.

  8. So, what information/paperwork do you need to have with you when you go to the UPS/FedEx depot to self-declare your package and will you be able to know what the rate of the duty is in advance of the visit?

    1. You’ll need a copy of your waybill/packing slip/ invoice or receipt which as I say the shipper can send you. You can also ask the company sending you the package (seller) to email you a copy of the same. Canada customs can tell you the duty if you call. That information is also on their website, but it is pages and pages and pages of specifications, categories, and subcategories. It’s faster just to call them.

  9. Thanks so much for all the helpful info! My situation is a little different since I (Alberta resident) purchased a gift for a family member in Newfoundland that was shipped (attempted delivery) to her place. The COD Brokerage fee is $200 for a $90 gift??!! It’s a custom ordered picture frame that weighs less than 5lbs (according to the ups online tracking info). I’m baffled! I’m assuming that she can not self clear a package that I ordered, although it was shipped to her, with her name on the package. Am I competely out of luck (and $200?)

  10. Just curious if you’ve ever dealt with a ‘high value shipment’ and self clearing? over @2500? I also keep getting the run around saying i have to go to the port of entry…. CBSA says I definitely don’t just wondering if you have any tactics on that one. I realize this is an old post but wanted to ask.
    Thanks

    1. I haven’t personally. But it should work exactly the same. Be persistent. Of course, they don’t want to lose the money on that kind of value so they won’t make it easy.

  11. HI Erin, thanks so much for sharing this info. So, this happened to me. Today DHL notify me that my shipment status is “Shipment held – Available upon receipt of payment”.. If you could please tell me what’s the next step (this is the first time that this happen to me).. should I collect all the document you mentioned and go to the main office? or to the airport? … Thanks in advance for you answer…

    1. Sorry for the late reply. You can contact your shipper and ask what the payment is for; perhaps it’s a COD delivery? If it’s duty/brokerage owing, ask them for a breakdown of the fees first.

    2. When self clearing at your local CBSA office, then driving to the local courier office, or faxing or emailing documents to the courier to say that you have paid, One must weigh the costs of time, costs in vehicle maintenance, gas and insurance, that it may be better to pay for any duties or taxes that are required to be paid.

      In my experience with DHL while shipping commercially, I do find that they charge very little to clear. If they have to pay duties and taxes on your behalf, they will charge a COD fee of $4.50

      My wife just ordered some fancy shoes that she could not find locally. They came in from China.

      Here are the fees:

      Duty @ 18% (CBSA)
      Taxes (GST/PST) $9.07
      DHL Processing Fee $10.00
      COD Fee $4.25

      Total to clear and deliver $35.56

  12. I am wondering, particularly with UPS if the shipping fee to vendors is low to encourage shipping bu UPS to Canada only to subsidize the cost of shipping by forcing the receiver to pay inflated brokerage fees.

  13. MY shipment arrived at the San Diego, Ca port, but I don’t know what paperwork I need to complete in order to self clear my cargo. Can you please help me. Thank you in advance.

  14. Thank you, I’m having problems where UPS is outright lying to me, saying that I have to wait for CBSA to phone me and get me the paperwork with in 24 hours. Two days have passed where I’ve followed up several times and they’re not sure why CBSA haven’t got back to me, and they’ve ‘escalated’ the request twice. Obviously now that they never contacted the CBSA and it’s all lies.
    A telling sign was when I wanted the number of the CBSA to phone them directly the lady said ” oh no, we don’t have their number we’re on a notes system…blah blah…” which is obviously a lie.
    Now I’m going to contact CBSA with the number you’ve given me as I couldn’t find their number anywhere on the net.

    UPS are scum and I should sue them for lying to the public.

  15. Thanks for the post !

    I see you’re in Calgary too. Where is the local CBSA office? Is it up by the airport where all the shipping companies are?

  16. DHL is one of the worst offenders. When I’ve mailed packages to Eastern Europe in the past they hold them hostage as soon as they arrive in country. They’ll tell me there isn’t customs or brokerage service in the destination city, which is usually hundreds of miles away. The package recipient is told they have to drive to where the package arrived if they want to self clear, knowing this is all but impossible.

  17. Hello!
    I am currently in the same situation right now, and I am from Toronto.
    Will it work the same way here in Toronto?

  18. Hello, I’m living in the prairies and my package from UK arrived at the Toronto port and is being held there. They phone me to either self clear or pay them the broker fee to clear custom. I have the release form completed at my CBSA office in here for self clearance, but the problem is they sent me too late the shipment paper work, the one where CBSA officer has to stamp. And now I have the form so I went to the CBSA officer yesterday asking them to stamp, but now they’re telling they cannot because they don’t deal with Toronto where the item is held at, unless I head there myself. But that’s a 2 hour flight, do you have any clues what I should do If my CBSA office don’t deal with Toronto area? my item is below 20$ CAD so there is no custom and duty, it’s about 16$ and they’re charging me 12$ for brokeage fee which is more than half the price of the item. The CBSA officer told me that I’m suppose to self account instead of self clear since I’m not physically at Toronto.

    1. I’m not familiar with self-accounting. I’ve only ever cleared shipments in my same city. I’d try calling CBSA again; maybe a different call taker can give better advice?

  19. I received a package via DHL which is currently being held at a local DHL facility in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I live.

    I called DHL and told them I wanted to self-clear the package, but they said you cant do that once delivery attempts have been made.

    They said if I want to self clear I would have to go to a warehouse in Hamilton, Ontario, once they send the package there.

    I dont know if they are being truthful

    1. I’ve found they aren’t. I’ve self cleared all my packages after the st delivery attempt. You have to push and be insistent. I often cite “negative option billing” which is a bad business practice (Good article – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_option_billing) and ask them why they didn’t FIRST offer me the attempt to clear the package myself? Sometimes it takes an hour on the phone and at least one supervisor; you must be persistent.

  20. I had a package come in from the US to Calgary. It was brought in through Toronto. UPS told me the only way I can clear it myself is… if I go to Toronto. I was pretty pissed off with their bullshit, but had no choice. They were going to send it back. I currently have another order coming in valued at $42,000 cdn. GST is $2100. Broker fee’s $350, priority HS fee, $14.30, One-time processing fee $105, Canadian Bond Fee $150, Gst on service $31. That is $650 added onto the GST. I need this cleared asap. Is it quicker for a broker to clear it or should I do it myself?

    1. It’s definitely quicker for the shipper to clear it for you. Less hassle. For me it was always about the principal and the money. And the fact I wasn’t even given the option to do it myself.

  21. Hello do you know what should I do if my
    Item has not yet arrived to my destination, but DHL calls telling me I have to pay the brokerage fee in order to get the package moving? The problem is my CBSA office doesn’t deal with Toronto area where the package is being held, what should I do in this case since my package is not moving to my destination so I can reject it at the door and self clear myself?

    Many thanks!

    1. Hi Lena,
      You should be able to ask DHL by phone to assist you in the self clearing process. It’s easier if it hasn’t been delivered yet. Tell them you’ll self clear and you need the paperwork, and don’t take no for an answer. Escalate it to a supervisor if you must.
      -e

  22. Hello Erin,

    Do you have any experience with US-to-Canada reshippers? Does using those services make it more difficult to self-clear customs? There’s one of the reshippers in particular that is actually run by a customs brokerage! I’m asking them if they’re OK with me self-clearing but I think I know what the answer will be LOL… If you know of any of those services that work all right with self-clearing, I would love to know about them.

    1. Hi… Thanks for writing. I don’t I’m afraid, but I’d really like to hear how your experience goes. I hope you’ll post an update!

  23. I appreciate this article, it did help me as well, although my experience was different.

    I live in a smaller town, and they contract out the delivery to a third-party. When the delivery was attempted, I wasn’t home. The note was left saying I owed $108.25 for about $300 or so of car parts.

    I called UPS customer service at the number provided on their website, spoke to a human and told them that they could hold the package and I would pick it up as I wasn’t going to be home, but also that I’d like to self-clear it. The person on the phone said they would let whomever know to hold it, and someone would contact me regarding the self-clearing within 24 hours.

    The next day a woman from UPS in Vancouver called me and asked for my email address so she could email me the necessary paperwork. She even said that if I sent the completed customs paperwork back to me, that they would still deliver it to my house, but I told her to hold it since I’m not home during the day and the UPS hub is right near the customs office anyway.

    I also got a call from the third-party contractor wondering what was going on, and I told them, and they said they’d send the package back to the UPS hub. I also got a call from the seller of the goods wanting to know what was going on because UPS had called them to say that they hadn’t been able to collect duty and that customs was going to seize the package. That was odd.

    I never did get the email with the paperwork, but I did get another phone call from a UPS woman in Winnipeg who said she had the paperwork at their hub office, and described exactly where I needed to go to pick it up. Either it was her or the woman who called from Vancouver who also said that I should print off receipts since it was an online purchase to take to CBSA. This office, unfortunately was only open 9am-3pm and the customs office 8am-4pm.

    I went to the hub in Winnipeg and picked up the paperwork. The woman there gave me directions to the CBSA office and told me what to give them, and what to come back with. I did that, returned to UPS with the paperwork and picked up my package.

    In the end I had to pay $52.49 in GST/PST, vs. $108.25 that UPS wanted. Although it was a bit of a process, no one gave me a hard time about it or tried to dissuade me from doing it, and everyone I talked to was actually quite helpful in the process. Hopefully, this is a sign of changing times, and it will be that easy for everyone.

    1. Hopefully, your time, fuel and auto expense for achieving your objective is less than the $50 plus in savings.

      Like it or not, in Canada we get screwed. But, sometimes it is best to accept the practice.

      The other option is to work with the shipper and get all this information before hand, then self clear before the package arrives.

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