Tobacco raids could unveil criminal network supplying Norfolk and Suffolk
10:59 11 April 2014
(C) Archant Norfolk 2014
A damaging criminal network flooding Norfolk and Suffolk with illicit tobacco could be unmasked by fresh evidence seized in raids across the region, trading standards has said.
Building the case
Within three hours the raids were over.
But while it may have only taken a morning to seize thousands of illicit cigarettes, Operation Damask was weeks in the making.
Trading Standards took a two-pronged approach to building the intelligence it needed to launch a sting that spanned two counties and involved 50 officers.
Some of the evidence came direct from the general public who made complaints about the quality of the cigarettes they were smoking. This included a college student who raised his concerns after buying tobacco from a shop in Great Yarmouth.
Norfolk Trading Standards said the information people shared with them had been vital. But if a raid was going to be successful, officers needed first-hand evidence that illicit tobacco was being sold.
To do this, the watchdog worked closely with Norfolk Police and HMRC to carry out test purchases, where they entered suspected properties and bought illegal tobacco undercover.
These two methods were enough to build a strong case that sparked action. Yesterday, they issued five warrants to search properties in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.
But they are hopeful that the mobile phones, documents and computers they seized at the sites will now unlock a web of information that will put them on the front foot in the war on illegal tobacco.
Mobile phones, computers and documents found by officers as part of a crackdown on counterfeit and duty evaded cigarettes could provide the key to revealing a web of suppliers that are smuggling illegal goods into East Anglia.
The revelation comes after four people were arrested and more than 50,000 illicit cigarettes and tobacco products were discovered during a major operation in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft yesterday morning.
Dog handling teams discovered thousands of pounds worth of illicit tobacco stashed in a storage heater, the boot of a car, under stairs and beneath kitchen cabinets.
Officers descended on three properties in Great Yarmouth, and two homes in Lowestoft.
What is illicit tobacco ?
• Smuggled: these are generally legitimately manufactured tobacco products which have evaded payment of tax by being illegally transported, distributed and sold.
• Bootlegged: these are tobacco products which are purchased in a country with a low level of taxation and illegally brought into the UK, evading payment of tax.
• Counterfeit: these are illegally manufactured tobacco products which are often made abroad, but sometimes in the UK. They are sold cheaply and tax free and vast profits are made throughout the supply chain.
• Jin Ling: a counterfeit Chinese cigarette brand which has become a big player in the illicit tobacco market. Smuggled cigarettes can come into the UK from a range of continents, including the Far East and eastern Europe.
Spearheaded by Norfolk Trading Standards, the clampdown – code named Operation Damask– followed weeks of intelligence gathering and involved more than 50 officers in a joint initiative with Norfolk Police and HMRC.
And now the watchdog believes it could be on the cusp of launching further operations after seizing mobile phones and computers that may hold the contact details to illicit tobacco suppliers.
Stephen Maunder, Norfolk Trading Standards consumer engagement officer, said yesterday’s operation would have a significant impact on the trade of illegal cigarettes.
“We are very happy with what we have achieved here,” he said. “We have taken a significant number of illicit items away that would have been sold.
“It shows that we can take positive action to protect consumers and businesses from these products – especially the shops which are selling genuine tobacco openly and fairly.
“We have seen some quite ingenious ways that these people have used to try and conceal these products. We found cigarettes piled up in a storage heater like a vending machine.
“It just shows the lengths they will go to. This is why the dog unit is so important to us in order to make these discoveries.”
The sting follows a tenfold increase in illicit tobacco complaints across Norfolk, while the amount of tobacco seized has also risen.
Figures revealed by Norfolk Trading Standards show that complaint allegations about illicit tobacco across the county rose from 10 – between April 2011 to March 2012 – to 111 between April 2012 and December 2013.
The watchdog said that young people, who may have been refused a tobacco sale at a local shop because they are under 18, are being targeted by people selling illicit products on the streets, or by corner shop owners who are flouting the rules and selling smuggled or counterfeit tobacco under the counter.
Tests on confiscated counterfeit tobacco have revealed traces of sawdust, asbestos and rat droppings – posing a serious health risk if smoked.
Pauline Smyth, 37, who lives in the area of Great Yarmouth where the raids took place, said the illegal cigarettes were undercutting businesses in Great Yarmouth.
“It is a problem that is getting worse,” she said. “It is wrong because it is putting people’s jobs at risk.”
David Collinson, head of Norfolk Trading Standards, said the action would prevent people from being exploited.
“Cheap tobacco may seem to be a bargain and a way of saving money if you’re on a stretched budget,” he said.
“And when they are sold at half the price of legal tobacco, they become even more accessible to our children – with serious health consequences for them.
“But, if tobacco isn’t dangerous enough already - these products can be fake and completely unregulated.
“They can be full of damaging toxins from additives and they can be manufactured in unsafe, unhygienic conditions.
“Taking these products out of circulation is a positive step for consumers.
“It will also help establish a more level playing field for those honest retailers whose businesses can be undermined when illicit tobacco is being sold by other traders in their streets.”
Last year, a public accounts committee report revealed the UK economy lost £1.9bn through tobacco smuggling, which is equal to 20pc of all the duty collected on cigarettes.
But the UK Border Force and the HMRC claims to have reduced the illicit market share of cigarettes from 22pc between 2000/2001 to 9pc in 2012/2013.
• If you want to report a case of illicit tobacco trading, contact the Citizens Advice Consumer helpline on 08454 040 506 or you can speak to someone anonymously at Crimestoppers on 0800 5551111.
• Have you been affected by the illegal cigarettes? Contact reporter Ben Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org