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ABF arrests four men linked to illicit tobacco syndicate

Four men have been arrested and approximately 4.5 tonnes of tobacco seized during an Australian Border Force investigation into an illicit tobacco smuggling syndicate operating in Victoria.

The ABF Tobacco Strike Team estimates that the illicit tobacco products, also including 615,000 cigarette sticks, seized during the operation equates to around $3.5 million in attempted revenue evasion.

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The Australian Federal Police has also restrained more than $1.3 million in associated cash and property as a result of the operation.

ABF Assistant Commissioner Investigations Wayne Buchhorn said these figures highlight the scale of organised crime’s movement into the illicit tobacco market.

“Because it is so highly taxed, tobacco is very attractive to serious criminal groups,” Assistant Commissioner Buchhorn said.

“Given that organised crime syndicates often use the proceeds of their crimes to fund additional criminal activities, the ABF targets illicit tobacco smuggling as a priority.”

The Tobacco Strike Team began the operation after identifying a significant tobacco smuggling network linked to a ‘cheap cigarettes’ website. ABF investigators established links across the network’s supply chain and from 24-26 August 2016, executed seven search warrants at residential properties, storage facilities and commercial premises.

Two men were arrested during the warrant activity, while investigators also seized approximately two tonnes of illicit tobacco and gathered evidence of the syndicate’s operations.

One of the arrested men, a 32-year-old Chinese national, has been identified as an unlawful non-citizen and he remains on remand.

On 8-9 September 2016, the Tobacco Strike Team executed a further 12 search warrants at Australia Post outlets across Melbourne and have since identified several sea cargo shipments of illicit tobacco.

On 7 November 2016, ABF investigators arrested another syndicate member after executing multiple search warrants on premises and vehicles linked to one of these shipments.

On 14 November 2016, Australian Border Force officers arrested a fourth syndicate member, who is suspected of managing the ‘cheap cigarettes’ website.

All four men arrested during this operation have been charged with importing tobacco products with the intention of defrauding the revenue, contrary to section 233BABAD (1) of the Customs Act 1901(Cth).

Two of the men have also been charged being in possession of tobacco products, contrary to Section 233BABAD (2) of the Customs Act 1901 (Cth).

Since its establishment in October 2015, the Tobacco Strike Team has seized over 22 tonnes of tobacco and 52 million cigarettes and, in collaboration with the AFP, restrained over $7 million in alleged proceeds of crime.

The maximum penalty for tobacco smuggling is up to 10 years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to five times the amount of duty evaded.

Investigations into this syndicate remain ongoing.

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