New unit to target cigarette smugglers
Smuggling gangs who deliver illicit cigarettes door to door to order are the target of a new customs unit, which will also monitor those trying to sell cigarettes online.
The 15-strong team will tackle gangs who deliver fliers with price lists for different brands and mobile phone contact numbers. The cigarettes sell for between one-fifth and half the usual retail price as smokers seek cheaper options after a 41.5 per cent increase in the tobacco tax came into force last year.
The unit, which starts work in April and will have an annual budget of more than HK$4 million, was set up in response to a shortage of manpower on the anti-illicit cigarette investigation team that was set up in 2003.
The older unit will focus on finding illegal cigarettes as they are imported or stored.
'We foresee that phone-ordering services for illicit cigarettes will continue and the new unit can strengthen our action to fight the illegal trade,' said Superintendent Kong Shui-wing, deputy head of customs' revenue and general investigation bureau.
He said undercover efforts were becoming more difficult because gangs were taking more precautions after customs officers stepped up efforts to tackle contraband cigarettes last year.
The crackdown resulted in the seizure of 106 million illicit cigarettes worth about HK$250 million, the largest seizure since 2008 and up about 40 per cent on the 2010 figure.
But traffickers 'have reacted to the crackdowns and become more alert to our undercover operations', Kong said, with many using prepaid phone cards and changing their contact numbers regularly to avoid detection.
'To avoid being caught, they have ways of screening new customers to ensure the potential clients are not undercover agents. They will ask more questions over the phone, observe and check out where they live before doing business.'
The gangs are particularly active in public housing estates in Tin Shui Wai and Sheung Shui. Complaints about telephone sales were the subject of more than 1,000 of the 2,792 complaints relating to illicit cigarettes received by the Customs and Excise Department last year.
The customs team would also look at the sale of cigarettes through internet chat rooms, Kong said.
He said customs officers were monitoring websites, but undercover officers posing as buyers had found only a handful of such cases in the past two years.