From: Daily Record
By Paul O’Hare
WARNINGS have been issued that the fake smokes – posted into the country – contain high levels of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide.
TRIAD gangsters are flooding Scotland with tons of illegal tobacco – in tens of thousands of parcels from China.
The trade is worth more than £10million a year to the Chinese crooks and cheats the taxman out of millions in duty.
And as well as funding organised crime, Scots who buy the cut-price rolling tobacco at street markets are gambling with their health.
It often contains dangerously high levels of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide.
Customs intercept thousands of the small parcels – often labelled as tea, rice, prawn crackers or fortune cookies – but just as many more get through.
Joe Hendry, a senior investigator at HMRC, admitted: “We’re awash with it. We’re seizing about half of what’s being brought in.
“They post small quantities, but they post them often.”
The trail begins in Triad factories in China, where the tobacco destined for Scotland is produced.
The gangsters couldn’t care less about quality control. Hendry said: “If you buy this stuff, God knows what is in it.
“Sometimes the factories are good enough to have a sheet on the floor. But other times they just sweep up all the extra bits that fall on the floor, along with dust and everything else.
“Some of the tobacco would not be used in the rest of the world because it has dried out or whatever.
“And some of the factories are just horrible. They have dogs wandering about. We would call it condemned tobacco but they don’t care.”
When the tobacco is ready for shipment, the Triads split it into parcels for posting.
The vast majority of the packages weigh less than two kilos, ensuring they are sent through the Royal Mail rather than Parcel Force.
The parcels are airmailed to the UK. Any weighing more than two kilos go to the international parcel hub at Coventry, but most are sent to Langley, near Slough on the outskirts of London, for processing.
Royal Mail and UK Border Agency staff find thousands of them. They spotted 287kg of tobacco in a “quiet week” last week – the average monthly haul is 1.4 tons.
The parcels that get through are sent to Triad accomplices in Scotland. Those detected so far range from former drug addicts in Bargeddie, near Glasgow, to well-off families in nearby Stepps.
They are paid between 50p and £2 for each parcel, but their earnings can mount up.
It’s believed one man arrested in a recent raid was receiving up to 40 parcels per week in the eight weeks before he was caught.
Each smuggling gang uses multiple addresses in Scotland. Hendry said: “This operates everywhere, in all major cities. In Glasgow they have a number of addresses and they just flood them with tobacco.”
HMRC are watching 30 addresses in Glasgow suspected of receiving tobacco parcels.
After the tobacco arrives at its destination addresses, Triad couriers collect it and take it to backstreet packaging factories, often hidden inside houses.
The crooks’ favourite tactic is to disguise their low-quality tobacco as Golden Virginia.
Workers stuff it into 50g pouches, seal it and label it, complete with a stamp to make the packs look genuine. It’s then sent for sale to street markets across the country, including Glasgow’s Barras and one at Ayr.
The pouches sell for £6.50, compared to £15 for the genuine article. The gangs make around £3.50 profit per pack.
Most of the cash made goes back to China. But the money made funds other Triad crimes in Scotland, including the growing of cannabis.
The gangs are heavily involved in cannabis farming, using empty houses to produce huge crops of super-strong “skunk”, which has been linked to mental health problems including schizophrenia in the young.
Forty-six cannabis farms were discovered in Scotland in 2011.
The Triads also traffic women for the sex trade and extort protection money from restaurants.
And they have been linked in the past to massive global credit card fraud, as well as drug trafficking, kidnapping, trafficking of illegal immigrants, video piracy, counterfeiting, loan sharking and illegal gambling.
Hendry said: “The people who buy this tobacco are bankrolling organised crime.”
HMRC in Scotland have launched a special operation, codenamed Chess, against the illegal tobacco trade involving the Chinese community.
It began in April, after a raid on a storage unit in Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, netted 208 kilos of tobacco and 87,000 packages. The haul had the potential to cheat the public purse out of £694,000.
Last month, HMRC seized 34.5kg of tobacco, 89,000 labels, 238,000 sellophane wrappers, fake foreign stamps, heat sealers and a large amount of vinegar, which is used to preserve tobacco, from an illegal factory in Hilltown, Dundee.
Three people were arrested over the Dundee operation. And last week, a raid in Renfrew netted 12 kilos of tobacco and 45,000 packages. A Chinese man in his 30s has been charged.
Despite all Customs’ efforts, the illegal tobacco keeps coming in.
But HMRC will continue to go after the Chinese crooks, and anyone else involved in the trade.
Hendry told the gangsters: “You are on our radar and we are aiming to get you. We are not going to settle for taking out the couriers.
“We are building a picture of how the whole operation is working, with a view not just to hitting the lower end of the chain but to ultimately hit the higher echelons.”
If you have any information about the illegal tobacco trade, contact the anonymous HMRC helpline on 0800 59 5000.