Cigarette smugglers will have assets seized and cars crushed
CIGARETTE smugglers will have their assets seized and cars crushed as Customs officials target the multi-million euro illicit trade.
Seizures of untaxed cigarettes have increased fourfold in the past five years amid a massive crackdown on ports and a blitz on shops and markets.
More than 200 million untaxed cigarettes destined for the black market -- which would have sold at an estimated loss to the Exchequer of close to €65m -- are expected to be seized by the end of this year.
A new three-year strategic plan targeting untaxed cigarettes will see a doubling in the number of Customs operations targeting flights and people selling cigarettes in markets, housing estates and under the counter in shops.
Tom Talbot, head of Customs' criminal investigation branch, revealed that they planned to hit smugglers harder in their pocket next year.
He told the Irish Independent there would be increased seizures of both assets and 'cover loads' -- legitimate goods often smuggled into the country in the same containers as counterfeit cigarettes.
Currently, when a person is stopped with untaxed cigarettes, they can usually have their car or van returned for a fine.
"We have done that in the past as we don't have the resources to keep all of these (vehicles)," Mr Talbot said.
"What you will see much more of next year is an increase in asset seizure. That means we take the car and it doesn't go back to them. If we have to spend €500 on crushing it, we will do that.
"We are literally affecting them and their pocket; they don't get the car back."
He added that, from next year, cover loads will also be forfeited to the State. The vehicles at threat of being crushed include those delivering illegal product to the markets or moving an illicit load from a container to a house.
Mr Talbot warned that Ireland was such a "huge target" as it was a back door to the UK.
The average cost of a 20-pack of cigarettes here is €8.55 -- more than 13 times the price of a pack in Ukraine.
Customs, which has set up a high-level group to target tobacco, also plans to increase the number of people prosecuted.
In 2008, 85 people were convicted of smuggling and selling untaxed tobacco, which doubled to 165 in 2009.
But out of 63 people convicted of tobacco offences up to the end of September this year only three served any time in prison.
Just 50 million cigarettes were seized in 2006 but this surged to 218 million in 2009 -- boosted by the biggest ever haul of its kind in Europe, when 120 million smuggled cigarettes were seized at Greenore port, Co Louth.
Up to mid-December, 135 million counterfeit or 'cheap white' cigarettes were intercepted in 16 large maritime seizures of containers coming mainly from China but also from Russia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Around 167 million cigarettes in total were seized up to mid-December.
Customs officers are using two port scanners, tobacco dogs, X-ray machines and shipment profiling at ports to stop the smugglers.
But smugglers are constantly trying to outwit the scanners, which contributed to the seizure of 22 million cigarettes last year.
Lead-lined boxes -- resembling the coffins more frequently associated with drug caches -- have been used, while smugglers have also lined containers with steel items to fool the scanners.
It is estimated that no tax is paid on one-in-five cigarettes smoked in the country.