ATF: “we’ve had people…pay for cigarettes with two kilos of cocaine”

From: Daily Press

By Austin Bogues

ATF: Counterfeit cigarettes on the rise

The average consumer won’t recognize a pack of counterfeit cigarettes, but they might recognize the taste is different.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has been seeing an increase in counterfeit cigarettes, which mimic brand-name products, according to Teresa Merhige, resident agent in charge of the ATF’s Norfolk office. Raids this week targeted those cigarettes or other tobacco-related offenses.

Federal authorities announced Thursday they had made arrests in Hampton Roads involving people charged with counterfeit and untaxed cigarettes. Local law enforcement also raided stores on Wednesday that were believed to be selling untaxed cigarettes after being tipped off by federal authorities.

Eight individuals were suspected in the trafficking operation, which the U.S. Attorney’s office said originated in New Jersey and New York under two different criminal enterprises. The investigation began in June 2009.

Federal authorities said that the groups received the contraband cigarettes in exchange for more than $4 million in cash and other counterfeit goods, such as tax stamps and postage stamps.

ATF believes many of the counterfeit cigarettes might be coming in from overseas. “You’ve got to really be trained,” Merhige said. “Some of these counterfeits are pretty doggone good.”

Mike Campbell, a spokesman for ATF, said on Wednesday that these crimes are on the rise because the profit margin is quite lucrative for traffickers. “The tax on a pack of cigarettes in New York is considerably higher than in Virginia,” Campbell said. Campbell said local law enforcement officials helped in some of the undercover portions of the federal investigation.

“For example, we’ve had people come to Northern Virginia and pay for cigarettes with two kilos of cocaine,” Campbell said, illustrating the worth of the untaxed cigarettes. Campbell said that there is a state tax on cigarettes and different cities also have taxes on them as well.

Merhige said that retailers selling the untaxed cigarettes, which should have a tax stamp affixed to them by the wholesaler, is a regionwide problem that affects all of Hampton Roads.


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