Nearly 500 cross-border travellers have been caught carrying more than their quotas of duty-free cigarettes by a newly installed computer system, which has access to travellers' immigration records.
According to Customs and Excise, 1,245 travellers were screened by the new system between its installation on February 26 and last Tuesday. Of those, 490 were found carrying a total of 59,850 cigarettes.
Under the existing ordinance, residents aged 18 or above who have spent 24 hours or longer outside Hong Kong are allowed to bring in 60 duty-free cigarettes for their own use.
Three border checkpoints - Lowu, Lok Ma Chau and the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal - have been installed with the new computer system, which allows officers to check immediately whether or not a person has spent more than 24 hours over the border. Other checkpoints can also use the system with the help of officers stationed at the three checkpoints.
Previously, Customs officers had to rely on the help of immigration officers for such information.
But Acting Superintendent Jim Kwok Kai-chiu said that not all 490 people were trying to evade tax.
'Some of them honestly declared to us that they were carrying cigarettes but were not sure if they had left Hong Kong for more than 24 hours or not,' he said.
Mr Kwok said people who had made a declaration to Customs or had not intended to break the law would only be asked to pay the tax, while first-time offenders would receive a $2,000 fine and would have to pay five times the dutiable tax. Repeated offenders would be prosecuted, he said.
Of the 490 people, 171 were asked to pay the tax owed while a further 302 had decided to abandon their cigarettes. Fourteen were fined a total of $48,341. The remaining three people have been prosecuted and face a maximum $1 million fine and a two-year jail term.
Mr Kwok said Customs also had a long-standing practice of deploying plain-clothed officers to conduct routine checks on travellers based on a risk assessment system. During the same February 26-March 25 period, this system uncovered 4,583 cases of travellers abusing the cigarette allowance.