Bill Of Lading Explained: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

In the world of business, the Bill of Lading (BoL or B/L) is one of the main documents used to execute transportation transactions by sea, air or road.

What Is A Bill Of Lading (BoL)?

A Bill of Lading is a document issued by a Carrier (somebody who transports and delivers goods) to a Shipper (someone who supplies and/or owns the goods – also known as a Consignor), confirming goods were received in an acceptable condition and are ready to be shipped. Those goods will then be delivered by the carrier to a Consignee (the person who bought the goods in the first place). A Bill of Lading is essentially a contract of carriage between the Shipper, Consignee, and Carrier stating the terms and conditions of carriage.

carrier shipper consignee


What Are Bill of Ladings Used For?

A bill of lading can represent a receipt of goods.  

Shipments cannot be executed without a Bill of Lading. BoLs must be issued for goods to travel from Point A to Point B. They are legally binding documents, and they often serve as proof of ownership over the goods being carried.

A bill of lading also covers its role as title to goods.

Once the goods have arrived at destination, the Bill of Lading acts as a title to the goods. The consignee* listed will need to present the Bill of Lading in order to secure the release of the shipment by the carrier and claim ownership. In this sense, it is evidence of confirmation of delivery.

*Only the consignee listed on the Bill of Lading has contractual rights to request for the release of the cargo.

Bills of lading also make sure that the shipper is paid

In some cases, the shipper can hold the original bill until they receive payment. By doing this, the consignee is unable to access their goods until payment has been made and the Bill of Lading released.

Who Uses A Bill Of Lading?

Usually, are companies that sell transportation services that generate bills of lading. They can include owner-drivers, freight forwarders, steamship lines, third party logistics companies and others. They include companies transporting goods by any means, whether it be through air, sea, rail or road.

They can be used for both domestic and international deliveries.

What Is Contained In A Bill Of Lading? 

  • Details of the transportation company (i.e. the carrier), the shipper and/or consignee;
  • The place where the goods were loaded;
  • Destination;
  • Transportation mode (i.e. road, rail, air, sea, etc.);
  • The terms of the shipment (incoterms); and
  • A description of the goods being carried (including their weight, dimensions, classification, etc).

Accuracy Is Critical

We cannot stress the importance of providing accurate information on a Bill of Lading.

Mistakes in preparing bills of lading have led to disasters for transportation companies. For example, in 2017, a freight forwarder was ordered by a court in NSW to pay over $800,000 in damages for ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ because the bills of lading gave the impression that they were ocean carriers bills (when they were not).

Extreme caution must be taken when generating these bills.

Who Issues A Bill Of Lading?

The ‘Carrier’ is the only company that can issue the Bill of Lading.  When transporting by sea freight, the carrier can refer to the Shipping Line (Vessel Operating Common Carrier) or an NVOCC (Non-Vessel Operating Common Carrier) also known as a Freight Forwarder (although not all Freight Forwarders are NVOCC’s).

Who Receives A Bill Of Lading?

Bills of lading are normally provided to:

  1. The shipper;
  2. A broker, freight forwarder or a third party managing customs; and
  3. The consignee – this is the person who purchased the goods in the first place.

Example: if the goods are being imported through a freight forwarder on EXW terms (refer to incoterms again), this is the journey of a Bill of Lading:

Bill of lading process for import chart

If the goods are being exported, this bill of lading journey is as follows:

Infographic Bill of Lading export Process

Is there a bill of lading without a consignee?

The consignee is mandatory on a bill of lading.

The only situation when this to someone other than the receiving party or their nominated address is when a shipment is arranged on a Letter of Credit (L/C) which will sometimes require the bill of lading to be consigned ‘To Order’.

Even when this exception occurs, the L/C has been know to require the following varying options:

To order of the Shipper

To order of the Bank

In all these situations the Notify Party is usually the buyer/consignee.

How long does the consignee need to keep a bill of lading?

For the Australian Border Force (a.k.a Customs), records must be kept for 5 Years.

Different Types Of Bills Of Lading

There are many different types of Bills of Lading. They differ based on many factors such as the issuer of the BoL, the purpose of the BoL, its form of transmission, the relationship between buyer and seller, and the protection it offers to the buyer.

The main types of bill of lading dealt with for international transport are Ocean Bill of Lading, Seaway Bill of Lading, House Bill of Lading,  Master Air Way Bill of Lading, House Air Way Bill of Lading and occasionally Switch Bill of Lading. We will cover each one of them below. But first, there are two main categories that bills of ladings fall in that you need to know: negotiable and non-negotiable.

Negotiable And Non Negotiable BoL

An Original Bill of Lading is a negotiable and legal document as it represents the title of the goods. Non-negotiable Bills are in effect copies of the originals but have no power over the title of the goods.

Originals Bills of Lading (negotiable) must be endorsed by the consignee (buyer) when being transferred to a third party such as a freight forwarder and much like a cheque that is made out to a specific party.

When cargo moves under a Negotiable status, it is the forwarder’s responsibility to ensure it is surrendered to the appropriate authority to obtain possession. When cargo moves through the forwarder’s NVOCC services (Non Vessel Owning Common Carrier) on Negotiable Bills, the forwarder too must ensure that the Original Bill (Negotiable) is surrendered to them prior to releasing the consignee or their agent.

Failure to follow this process would hold the carrier responsible for the value of the cargo in the event that the contract between the shipper/consignee is not honoured.

Note that both terms only apply to sea freight. For airfreight, terms are Master Air Way Bill (MAWB) and House Air Way Bill (HAWB). However, unlike sea freight, Air Way Bills are classed as Non-Negotiable Documents unless they are consigned through a bank.

BoL Types

Ocean Bill Of Lading

This is generated by the Shipping Lines as the Carrier in this instance for containers transiting by sea and is generally used when the shipper would like to retain control of payment by a consignee (buyer) for the goods. The original bill of lading will be utilized to make sure payment is made before the goods are released to the consignee.

Once payment is receipted the document can be actioned in several ways, dependent on what the carrier makes available.

  1. Original Bill of Lading can be surrendered to the carrier for a Telex Release (a digital version of the BoL)
  2. Original Bill of Lading is couriered to the consignee to present to the reciprocating carrier at the destination to obtain release.
original-bill-of-lading-sample
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Sea WayBill of Lading

It is a Non Negotiable document issued instead of an Ocean Bill of Lading where the Shipper has no need to control the release of cargo.

sea-way-bill-of-lading
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House Bill Of Lading (HBoL)

Where cargo is arranged by sea freight through an NVOCC/Freight Forwarder a House Bill of Lading is generated.  This can be arranged as a Negotiable or Non Negotiable option depending on the requirements of the shipper.   Where a Non Negotiable option can be utilised it can sometimes be arranged/referred to as an Express Bill of Lading.

House-Waybill-of-Lading-sample
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Master Air Way Bill Of Lading 

Master Air Way Bills (MAWB’s) are Airline bills of Lading and are generated by the Airline or Freight Forwarders. They are Non-Negotiable documents excepting where the cargo is consigned ‘To Order’. This generally means that the shipment has been negotiated through a bank in which case a release from the bank in question would need to be presented prior to the cargo being released by the carrier.

Generally, these are arranged from Forwarder to Forwarder and a House Air Way Bill is generated from the shipper to the consignee.

airway-bill-of-lading-sample
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House Air Way Bill Of Lading 

This is the Air Way Bill that is issued by a Freight Forwarder for consolidated air freight shipments. HAWB’s are treated exactly the same as MAWB’s, provided they indicate the issuer itself assumes the liability as the carrier or is acting as the agent of a named carrier.

house-airway-bill-of-lading-sample
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Multimodal Bill Of Lading

These are when you’re using more than one type of transport. For instance, you may use rail for the some of the trip and then road for the rest.

Through Bill Of Lading

Through bills of lading are for goods transported by ocean as much as it can possibly be transported by ocean, and then by road or rail to the final destination. Ensure these are not mixed up with multimodal bills of lading.

Switch Bill Of Lading

When goods need to be moved and the supplier’s information needs to be kept private – generally in the case of a Triangle shipment where a buyer is onselling to a 3rd party, a second BoL is generated replacing the first with the updated information.

Dirty/Claused Bill of Lading

This term is used when the goods are received by the shipper in a damaged condition. In these cases, the carrier’s insurance company may refuse a claim for damage. Contrast this with a ‘clean’ bill of lading, where the goods are delivered in an acceptable condition.

Straight Bill Of Lading

This is a type of format of either an Ocean or House Bill of Lading and are used when the goods are paid in full and delivered direct to the consignee (i.e. the person or organisation that purchased the goods in the first place).

Cargo is only released to the named consignee at the declared destination and it only happens upon surrender of at least 1 of the original copies issued.

Electronic Bills of Lading – Telex Release and Express Release

Telex release and Express release are not types of Bill of Lading, but methods of releasing Bill of Lading.

A Telex Release is simply an EDI message or email which is sent by the carrier or agent at load port to their office or agent at discharge port informing that the shipper has surrendered one or all of the original bills of lading that have been issued to them. Based on this, the discharge port agent can release cargo to the named consignee shown on the bill of lading without presentation of any original bills of lading.

The Express Release Bill is similar to the Telex Release in the sense that it can be digital. However, the difference being that with the Express Release, no hard copies of the Bill of Lading are issued. With no originals are created, the Express Release offers many advantages, but should only be used under very specific circumstances.

BoL Differences Chart
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Why Are Incoterms Important To A Bill Of Lading?

Your choice of incoterms will determine how the whole process will be handled. Before reading on, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Incoterms to understand how the two interact. 

Which incoterms to use can be tricky, as it will depend on the nature of the business and what goods are being handled.

You must determine exactly what terms you are shipping on so there is clarity who is responsible for what part of the shipping process.

One Last Tip

Whenever embarking in shipping activity, be sure to engage an experienced forwarder to ensure all documentation and the flow of BoLs are handled correctly.

You can find other useful tips on the Australian government agency website helping you to understand import and export compliance.

Still have questions on this topic?

Leave us a message below or call 1300 227 461 to talk to one of our freight experts.

43 Comments

PRISCILLIA

What is the legal definition for seaway bill, surrender BL and telex release?

Marketing Dept insisted of surrendered BL vs seaway bill when buyer instructed to release the cargo without present of original BL at destination prior to shipment date.
shipper received 100% fund of purchase price.

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Priscillia,

Thank you for your enquiry.

From a commercial perspective, the shipper might choose to have an Original Bill issued for their goods and hold onto that Original Bill until the purchaser has paid. Once paid the shipper can Surrender the Originals to the Sending Agent or Shipping line and ask for the goods to be released without presentation of the Original via a Telex Release Notification sent to the Destination agent or Shipping Line. If a Seaway Bill is issued an original is not required for the release of the goods. This may be preferable when the purchaser has agreed credit terms or have paid in advance and the Original Bill doesn’t have to be held as collateral.

Reply
Alcino PINHEIRO

Due to a Laytime dispute , owners instructed port agents to withhold containers at port despite a telex release was provided to the agents by owners .

Can owners reverse its instruction?

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Alcino!

To answer the question, we would need more context.

Does the Laytime dispute relate to the container/s being held?

The term owners three times but seem to be referring to different parties. If the first ‘owner’ instructed the port agent to withhold the container then that party would be able to reverse the instruction.

The Telex Release only relates to the cargo being released from the shipper to the consignee.

If there are issues in relation to the cargo by other 3rd parties involved in the transport process, the telex release would not have any bearing in those transactions.

We hope that helps. If you need more information feel free to reply to this thread.

Reply
Metha Praphakorn

Can you please help me with the following wordings in the “Shipper/Exporter” Section of BL?

Seller
On behalf of (Buyer)

If we put this wording on the BL in the Shipper/Exporter section, do you think, as Seller, do we risk losing control of the cargo to the buyer if they fail to pay us? I need your general advice on this. Or in your opinion, it is ok to do it.

Consignee is “To Order” with B/L blanked endorsed.

Your kind help will be highly appreciated.

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Metha!

The Shipper/Exporter is usually the party that contracts the shipping of the consignment with the carrier.

If the consignee is stated as ‘To Order’ and blank endorsed this would indicate to the carrier that to release cargo to the entity that presents the Bill of Lading.

Should this format be requested, the only way the owner can retain control of the shipment is if they ensure that ‘Original’ Bills of Lading are generated and only pass these on to the buyer or surrender them to the carrier for a Telex Release once their terms are met. Should the carrier release cargo without the Originals being presented, they can be held liable for the consignment.

Also, note that in recent times it is rare to see a ‘To Order’ Bill of Lading unless it’s been arranged on a Letter of Credit.

We hope that helps.

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi there!
The short answer is no.

The usual purpose of a switch bill is to create a new bill of lading when you want to change the shipper/consigned on a consignment.

The location of company requiring this is irrelevant and, as such, there would not be a need to create a company in another country.

Reply
Barry

Hi Team,
When BL is as per below:
Shipper: ABC Company
Consignee: TO ORDER
Notify Party: XYZ Company (the customer of ABC Co.)

ABC sells to XYZ and has agreed to release BL upon payment.
Where does ABC Company stamp & sign Original BL docs?

Thank you

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Barry!

When a shipment is consigned ‘To Order’ this would usually imply that a bank is involved either with a Letter of Credit or possibly Cash Against Documents scenario. Whichever it is, the Original Bill/s is surrendered at origin to the nominated bank for them to transfer to the destination bank at which time the consignee would pay the destination bank to take receipt of the Original Bill/s.

With regards to Stamping/Signing the Original Bill:
On the face of the Bill it is signed/stamped by the carrier, wWhen consigned ‘To Order’ the back of the Bill of Lading should be endorsed by the shipper (ABC) and as a rule the releasing carrier at destination will require the Consignee/Notify party to also endorse the back of the Bill of Lading.

Hope that is of help!

Reply
Shaz

Is there any reason for a Bill of Lading made out to “TO ORDER” instead of a named consignee?

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Shaz!

When a shipment is made out ‘To Order’ it means that the Bill of Lading is to the order of the shipper and will be an original document.

Usually, this is arranged when payment terms for the cargo have been arranged through a bank and is an indication that a Letter of Credit may be involved.

When Bills of Lading are made ‘To Order’ the goods will only be released to the bearer of an endorsed Original Bill of Lading.

Only when the B/L is made out to order of the shipper is the shipper able to endorse in blank before presentation under the credit.

As a result,

Consignee: to order – shipper can endorse in blank
Consignee: to order of the shipper – shipper can endorse in blank
Consignee: to order of the issuing bank – issuing bank can endorse

We hope that helps.

Reply
Tanya Denman

Hello,

I am moving from Australia to the UK. I am sending personal used effects totalling 14 boxes, 1.59m. I have contact 3 companies but when I ask them about a bill of Lading for my items they say I don’t get one as its a consolidated container and because if privacy. But I thought the master bill of Lading would have everyone details and we would each receive our own bill of Lading. They say I just get their documents.

I am confused and think its important I get the right paperwork as a bill of Lading is a contract as such. Can you help please.

Thanks
Tanya

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Tanya!

By standard, all Shipping Lines and Freight Forwarders generally raise a Bill of Lading or an Air Waybill for exports. Considering the context, they may be contacting Courier companies who may only arrange a Consignment Note which can act as a Contract of Carriage.

If they are an experienced personal effects business they will ensure the correct documentation is provided to you. If you are still concerned perhaps you can ask for a copy of all the paperwork prior to departure.

Reply
Naglaa

How can i tell if the container FCL or LCL, will it be stated in the bill of lading or can i interpret it from the BL?
Thank you,

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Naglaa.
FCL – full container load.
LCL – less than container load.
Yes, this information is also included in the B/L.

Reply
John

My BOL, under freight and charges says

FREIGHT PREPAID

and in another column to the right of it, titled Collect has a date in under it. Please see here:

https://share.getcloudapp.com/d5u1XLoy

I’ve now received a bill from the freight forwarder asking for $1,400 dollars…

All I know is, that the supplier said, I’d pay for any cost from my port to me, and that they paid the freight to my port.

Any idea why this is? and what I should do about it?

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi John,
We a sorry to hear about this frustrating situation. The key thing to determine is the INCO term that was agreed between you and the shipper. A useful resource can be found here. Without knowing all the circumstances of the import – the charges that have been billed may relate to those costs from the port of arrival to the final destination.

Reply
Garrett Lipsteuer

We have a supplier in China asking if they need to prepare individual B/L’s, what exactly are they asking? I’ve never heard of a individual B/L.

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Garrett, thanks for getting in touch. As you will note a Bill of Lading acts as a contract of carriage. To provide a definitive answer to your question, we would need more information to understand your specific circumstances. Generally, a shipment being sent by a supplier will have a single Bill of Lading – your supplier may be sending different orders and may be wanting your instruction on how you would like orders consigned. ICE assist our clients everyday by communicating directly with overseas suppliers and arranging orders on their behalf. Please feel free to reach out again if we can assist further.

Reply
Lee Kavanagh

Hi,

we’ve been asked to add our HS Code to the Bill of Lading and also that of the consignee (which is different from ours). Do we have to show a customs code or can we leave it blank? Or to satisfy both are we able to publish both codes?

Thank you!

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Lee, thanks for getting in contact. Our understanding is that you have been asked to include a HS Code on the Bill of Lading (BOL) for an upcoming export. You can add both the codes in the description field to satisfy the requesting party. A sensible course of action may be to instruct your freight forwarder to add this information into the description field of the BOL and have them provide you a draft, this draft can then be shared with the requesting party – if they approve the BOL can be finalised or if further amendments are required you can instruct your freight forwarder accordingly. Good luck, we trust the above will be of help!

Reply
Lee Kavanagh

Thanks for your reply and help. The customer who is in Brazil wants to show the NCM Code which is completely different to the HS Code we are selling as. I guess we are ok to show the NCM code because the bill of lading is for import purposes into Brazil rather than export purposes from the UK?

Reply
Azri

Hi, can you explain the difference mechanism between House BoL and Master BoL when letter of credit is involved? Thank you in advance.

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Azri!

A Master BOL is usually the Ocean Bill of Lading and is generated by the shipping line. It only applies to Full Containers, however, if cargo is arranged through a Freight Forwarder a House BOL may be generated.

If cargo is LCL then the Consolidator will generate a Master BOL to cover the consolidated cargo within the container along with multiple House BOL’s for each shipper’s cargo within the container.

Neither usually have any relation to Letter’s of Credit as this document is a payment method used for the sale of goods between the exporter and importer. Letters of Credit usually stipulate conditions the exporter must fulfill and these sometimes specify document types that are acceptable however this can be negotiated if the parameters stipulated cannot be met. Example: if the shipment is LCL and an Ocean or Master Bill is requested, as that would be impossible to avoid.

We hope that helps.

Reply
Peter Kozaczuk

Can a carrier (FF, NVOCC) create a OBL internally, electronically sign and send to customer or would that be not acceptable (not industry standard), i.e. internally pass and surrender a OBL.

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Peter!

An Original Bill regardless of it being an Ocean Bill (generated by the shipping line) or a House Bill (generated by forwarders) can be surrendered to release cargo at either the origin or destination to the carrier or their representative.

Electronic versions Original Bills are unacceptable regardless of whether cargo is on a Letter of Credit or not.

Original Bills should be endorsed by the shipper and consignee and when a Letter of Credit is involved, they should also be endorsed by the bank.

Reply
K S Mohan Rao

We are a trading company (A) and purchasing goods from the Philippines (B) and selling them to Turkey (C). The Turkey buyer (C) provides with Transferable LC at sight payable at the delivery port after SGS Inspection to A.

We(A) are transferring the same LC to a Philippines supplier(B).
Now the Phillippines supplier loads goods as shipper and consignee will be our company (A).
A has to switch bill of lading and become shipper and C will be consignee.
What kind of BL is best suitable for switching and how to get the original BL s from B. Kindly advise the best mechanism

Reply
International Cargo Express

Thank you for your comment.

This would be best arranged through an NVOCC freight forwarder on a House Bill of Lading and for simplicity, it would be best if you liaise with a forwarder in your own country that can negotiate with their agent/s at origin and destination. They would then be in the ideal position to generate a switch bill for you as per the L/C requirements.

With it being on an L/C, when you transfer this to the supplier the original bill of lading generated at the Philippines and they would need to submit this to the bank as per the L/C requirement for the bank to transfer it to your bank. Once that part of the L/C is finalised the Initial L/C contract between you and the final consignee would need to be met with the switch bill through the bank.

We hope that helps!

Reply
Evie

What are the international convention in the context of bill of lading? Can you give me brief of them?

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Evie,
The Hague Rules is an international convention that imposes minimum standards upon commercial carriers of goods by sea. It is critical to understand the terms of carriage for the specific Bill of Lading in question, as these terms will apply to the carriage of the goods.

Reply
ifa

hye..
i just want to ask how to check verification code at cargo tracking? i ve ask our shipper, they said use verification code on bill of lading but I am not sure which to use. I am a little bit confuse about it. hope you can help me..thank you

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi there,

If you would like to track your cargo, this can simply be done with your container number by checking the shipping lines website. Unfortunately, we are unable to confirm what your shipper is referring to when they say verification code.

We hope this is of help.

Reply
Ain Arshad

Hi, I have noticed that the consignee name is the same as the shipper name but it put C/O at the end. Luckily, the address is different. Let’s say, the shipper address is using the shipping company address and it is used for RORO services, so what types of b/l is it?

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Ain, thanks for your comment! In the situation you have described it may be that the shipper and consignee have the same company name – this can be the case if they operate the same business or one company is a subsidiary of the other. The Bill of Lading (b/l) type is not totally clear based on the facts that you have described. RORO consignments b/l standards are very similar to conventional containerised cargo movements, it is likely that there will be an Ocean b/l. If you have any further questions please just let us know!

Reply
Gerardo Barron

hi!
when a BL has multiple stops the place of delivery must be the first or last stop.
Thank you!!

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Gerardo! The place of delivery will likely be the same as the final port of destination – so that would be the final stop of the voyage, where the container will be discharged and customs cleared. If there is anything else be sure to get in touch!

Reply
Jun Ogasawara

Hi,
I heard that ocean BLs are title documents but barge, rail, truck, air BLs are not title documents. Furthermore, I heard that ocean BLs can be perfected to act as collateral in financings but the barge, rail, truck, air BLs cannot be perfected. Please advise if this is correct. I am a financier and would like to have rail BLs act as collateral. How can I go about creating a lien on the rail BLs pledged to me?
Thanks,
JO

Reply
International Cargo Express

Hi Jun! Thanks for getting on contact with us. Whilst we would love to provide a definitive answer – we would suggest talking through this matter with a specialist transport solicitor. If you would like the details of some legal experts please let us know!

Reply
QH

hi, is it mandatory to indicate port of discharge on bill of lading? what’s the usual laytime allowed to discharge the cargo? Thanks!!

Reply
International Cargo Express

Thanks for your message! The port of discharge is a key piece of information on the Bill of Lading (BoL). The party that instructs the creation of the BoL will need to indicate the final port of discharge. The unloading time from containers is not an exact science – as the process to make containers available for collection at the port of discharge will depend on several factors not limited to: how many vessels are berthing and the number of containers that need to be discharged – in normal circumstances allow 48-72 hours for containers to be made available.

Reply
Nic

Would you be able to show the flow of a bill of lading (as show above) for below scenario:

A company acting as disponent owner of a vessel has chartered the vessel out for a simple voyage from Loadport A to Disport B.

Kindly explain/show, the different steps the BL takes and in which order it does so.

Thank you

Reply
International Cargo Express

Thanks so much for the question – such a technical question would be best answered by a specialist in maritime law. We have a strong relationship with Norton White, who are based in Sydney.

Reply

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