The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) is seeking to stamp out bills of lading fraud with a code of conduct register for non-vessel owning common carriers (NVOCCs).

IMB is a division of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) that specialises in tackling maritime crime and malpractice.

IMB claims that up to 95% of the false – erroneous or fraudulent – bills of lading it has identified are issued by NVOCCs.

The bureau, which conducts bills of lading checks for its members, states that while the vast majority of NVOCCs issue documents correctly, there is a small minority that do not.

According to IMB, this could lead to fraudulent practices, and banks that unwittingly process false bills of lading may find no cargo underlying the documents, or that the shipments are misrepresented.

The IMB NVOCC Register, which was launched in Singapore on January 15, will include a set of anti-fraud standards for the issuance of bills of lading and aims to create a database of creditable carriers that can be referred to by a NVOCC’s counterparties.

Member banks may also be able to process documents of carriers on the register faster than non-members, according to IMB.

An IMB spokesperson tells GTR that the bureau’s members are encouraging their NVOCCS to join and that it has registered more than 10 carriers so far.

The spokesperson explains: “Incidents of ship-owners/carriers or their agents issuing false bills of lading are uncommon because they take a big risk in doing so and open themselves to legal action.

“However, unlike the carriers or their agents, the majority of NVOCCs do not have any assets which are at risk in these transactions, except for their reputations.”

IMB clarified that its intention is not to exclude defaulting NVOCCs from the register but to help them improve the steps taken to issue bills of lading. Registered NVOCCs that fail to conform to the standards may be removed in certain circumstances.

Bill of lading modernisation has taken centre stage recently: earlier this year tech giant IBM partnered with Pacific International Lines (PIL), one of Southeast Asia’s largest shipping firms, to complete a real-time pilot of its electronic bill of lading (eBL) add-on for the IBM Blockchain Platform.Elsewhere, platforms like Bolero and essDocs have long been working on industry-approved eBL applications that give carriers and logistics providers the ability to create, send and manage bills of lading digitally.

Bolero recently partnered with container carrier Evergreen Line to produce a paperless bill of lading and dispatch documentation via its ShipmentLink portal. It is also looking at how to redesign its eBL service using blockchain technology, following the signing of a memorandum of understanding with fintech consortium R3 in October.

The emergence of eBLs has the potential to revolutionise the international trade industry as archaic paper-based systems mean goods are often held up in ports waiting for bills of lading to verify the goods. In addition to the increased speed of document transfers, the use of a blockchain-based system is also expected to significantly reduce the risk of fraudulent bills of lading being processed.