From: Australian Border Force

Tackling organised crime at the border

AS THE operational arm of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the Australian Border Force (ABF), plays a crucial role in keeping Australia and the community safe and ensuring our economic prosperity.

Organised crime syndicates pose a serious risk to the integrity of our border, to our community and our economy. This illegal activity reduces the amount of revenue collected, which ultimately impacts funds available to the Australian Government for essential services like health, education and infrastructure.

Organised crime syndicates are involved in a range of illegal activities across the border continuum, including dealing illicit drugs, revenue evasion, tobacco smuggling, money laundering and people smuggling. While our efforts to combat organised crime have had significant success over the past financial year, criminal enterprises will continue to find new ways to move goods across our border illegally. The ongoing and pervasive threat associated with organised crime requires the ABF’s approach to be dynamic, targeted, comprehensive and integrated with law enforcement partners, both domestically and internationally.

Last financial year, the ABF made more than 18,000 detections of major drugs and precursors; more than 1750 detections of undeclared firearms, parts and accessories; and more than 80 detections of tobacco in sea cargo, representing duty evasion of $40m. Combatting the importation of illicit tobacco is an operational priority for the ABF – particularly given the increased involvement of serious and organised crime groups looking to profit by smuggling illicit tobacco across the border and into the black market.

ABF Assistant Commissioner Investigations Wayne Buchhorn, said illicit tobacco attracted highly sophisticated and organised crime groups because they perceived involvement in the illicit tobacco market as a low risk, high profit enterprise.

“The illicit trade in tobacco products in Australia significantly affects government, industry, healthcare and the economy, as it causes loss of Commonwealth revenue, acts as a funding source for serious and organised crime, and undermines tobacco prevention and control initiatives,” Assistant Commissioner Buchhorn said.

“We are seeing positive steps in addressing the illicit tobacco trade and the ABF is working closely and sharing information and intelligence on the syndicates with domestic and international law enforcement partners.”

Since its establishment in 2015, the ABF’s Illicit Tobacco Intelligence Unit has developed a strong understanding of the syndicates involved in tobacco smuggling, and the methodologies those syndicates employ. This has enabled the ABF to undertake proactive, intelligence-led operations to combat the illicit trade of tobacco.

“In 2016, research and analysis by the Illicit Tobacco Intelligence Unit resulted in the detection of over 13 million cigarettes across air cargo, sea cargo, and international mail, which prevented the evasion of over $7.48 million in revenue. A further 23,800 kg of tobacco was detected across air cargo and sea cargo, preventing the evasion of over $17.1 million in revenue,” Assistant Commissioner Buchhorn said.

The Department dedicated Tobacco Strike Team executes much of the intelligence informed operational work targeting serious organised crime syndicates who are exploiting the border to make significant profits from illicit tobacco. Information received from industry has resulted in specific investigations as well as providing a broader picture of the illicit tobacco market.

Our Border Watch program is particularly valuable in this respect. It provides a mechanism that enables industry and the broader community to report suspicious activities, helping to protect our borders. A number of referrals from industry have resulted in significant detections. For example, in December 2015, an industry tip-off led to the Tobacco Strike Team dismantling a criminal syndicate allegedly responsible for evading over $15 million in duty related to the plain-packaged Spoonbill brand of cigarettes.

In April 2016, the Tobacco Strike Team successfully shut down a large scale tobacco smuggling and distribution network. That case involved the seizure of more than 10 tonnes of loose leaf tobacco, 10 million smuggled cigarettes and $1.7m in cash (suspected of being proceeds of crime). The case also resulted in the restraint, by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) Criminal Assets Confiscation Task Force, of $4 million held in two bank accounts and a vehicle valued at more than $290,000.

In August 2016, the Tobacco Strike Team identified a container of 1 million “Brass” brand cigarettes, falsely described as porcelain tiles. One person was arrested and charged with tobacco smuggling under the Customs Act and has been bailed to appear at a later date.

Also in August, the Tobacco Strike Team dismantled a tobacco smuggling syndicate. The ABF alleges that the syndicate was smuggling and distributing illicit cigarettes and chop chop (loose tobacco), through retail and online outlets. The investigation was supported by the Department of Health and the AFP Criminal Assets Confiscation Task Force. This investigation involved the execution of 19 Customs Act search warrants at commercial and residential premises around Melbourne; the seizure of 4.5 tonnes of illicit tobacco; the arrest of four people, one of whom was found to be an unlawful non-citizen and remains in detention; and the restraint of $600,000.

Reflecting the increasing seriousness of illicit tobacco smuggling and providing a significant deterrent, the Customs Act was amended in 2012, increasing the penalties for tobacco smuggling to imprisonment of up to ten years, and/or a fine of up to five times of the duty evaded.

The ABF is also seeing a shift to criminals using online channels in an attempt to avoid the scrutiny of our officers and partner agencies. The Darknet, as it is known, is a growing market for the trade of illicit goods and services, and the ABF works with other agencies to combat this growing threat. Illegal drugs are the most common item purchased and sold on the Darknet, however, a wide range of illicit items such as weapons, fake identities, prescription drugs, and illegal services such as money laundering are also being offered for sale on Darknet sites.

In October this year the ABF took part in the ‘Darknet Period of Action’, an international multi-agency operation targeting people sourcing and dealing in illicit drugs and other illegal items using Darknet sites, in this instance focusing on illicit items procured from the Darknet market in international mail.

ABF officers identified illicit items matching the characteristics of the Darknet market. During the operation, the ABF made 122 detections of illicit drugs across Australia including MDMA, cannabis, cocaine, ketamine, amphetamine and methylamphetamine. Eleven search warrants were executed across the country resulting in four arrests and six summonses being issued.

This action initiates a more unified global law enforcement response to the growing use of Darknet sites to buy and sell illicit goods and services. The ABF has been working to target and build intelligence on illicit importations, including via the Darknet, and the results are evidenced by this successful operation.

ABF Assistant Commissioner Strategic Border Command Clive Murray, said the operation was another example of the real-world consequences of buying illicit items online.

“The ABF and our partner agencies are well aware of Darknet websites and their use as a virtual trading venue for illicit goods,’ Assistant Commissioner Murray said.

“At some point, all goods sourced internationally must cross the border and the ABF has the capability to target and detect these goods—no matter what it is.”

At the core, much of the successful work the ABF undertakes can be attributed to the advanced technology available and our highly skilled and well trained officers. The ABF is committed to ensuring the security of Australia’s borders and contributing towards building a strong economy by combatting organised crime syndicates and disrupting the trade of illicit goods across the border. The ABF continues to work with law enforcement partners, along with industry, to combat these threats, as has been demonstrated by our work in dismantling the trade of illicit tobacco and Darknet markets. We are committed to driving transformational reform of border arrangements to support a strong industry sector and stronger economy, and recognise the importance of these relationships.


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