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Illegal cigarette buyers caught red-handed by Customs officers posing as deliverymen

Some smokers thought they were saving money by buying duty-unpaid cigarettes online or from peddlers, but ended up paying a much higher price when the long arm of the law reached out to knock on their doors.

One of these buyers, a security officer, 33, opened the door to his Bukit Batok flat to receive a parcel of contraband cigarettes that he had ordered online.

But the Singaporean was stunned to be met by officers from Singapore Customs, who posed as deliverymen to catch such buyers.

He is said to have ordered illicit cigarettes several times in the past, but this time, Customs found at his home more than five tins containing 250 sticks in total.

He was one of 15 buyers caught red-handed on Dec 7 to 8 during an islandwide crackdown at about 30 locations to catch those who bought duty-unpaid cigarettes through e-commerce platforms or through peddlers at heavy-vehicle carparks.

Two of these buyers were arrested, and another 13 Singaporean men, aged between 21 and 59, were fined between $500 and $5,000.

On e-commerce platforms, duty-unpaid cigarettes are usually listed at half the price of those legally sold behind the counter.

These sellers illegally evade Customs duty that is calculated based on the number and weight of each stick, and taxes.

Customs officers seized a total of 4,137 sticks of cigarettes during the sting, translating into almost $2,800 of levies evaded.

The Straits Times followed Customs officers to several locations in the West on Tuesday (Dec 7), including the home of the security officer who was arrested and later released on bail.

Customs arrested a man and detained his motorbike after purchasing multiple cartons of duty unpaid cigarettes from illegal peddlers. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Believed to be from Indonesia, his parcel was detected by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority and handed over to Customs officers, who posed as deliverymen.

The buyer was arrested after accepting the parcel, due to the larger quantity of illicit cigarettes he had purchased.

Amid the pandemic, smokers have turned to e-commerce platforms and online dealers instead of street peddlers to obtain duty-unpaid cigarettes, said Singapore Customs after the sting.

"These buyers may have a false sense of security, thinking the risk of being caught is lower compared to buying from peddlers physically," said Mr Chua Teck Hui, head of Singapore Customs’ suppression and community engagement branch.

In listings on e-commerce platforms Shopee and Carousell seen by ST, sellers avoid detection by renaming the cigarettes with titles that hint at the original product but are instantly recognisable to those familiar with the brands.

Many of the duty-unpaid cigarettes are listed as being from Indonesia. Some are harder to spot as the images of cigarettes are craftily juxtaposed with pictures of unrelated products such as speakers.

Listings of contraband identified have been removed and a sweep of similar listings was conducted, a Shopee spokesman said in response to ST queries. She added that in such cases, sellers will be notified and banned from the platform, if necessary.

A Carousell spokesman said the firm works closely with the authorities to ensure a safe marketplace, and that those who do not comply with listing rules may be removed from the platform and face enforcement action.

Both firms urged users to report any unauthorised goods they may come across to site administrators.

Custom officers conducting a controlled delivery operation on a residential unit. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Singapore Customs also planted cameras in carparks near Upper Bukit Timah and Mandai in the past months to observe peddling activities at night, when many deals are made away from the public eye.

One of these buyers was a tug boat captain, 56, who had been fined several times before for contraband but reoffended.

This time, officers handed him a fine of $5,000 on the spot, having traced his motorcycle from one of the carparks to his home.

His three children were at home when officers raided it, seizing almost 1.5kg of duty-unpaid cigarettes.

The man told officers they were for his personal use, as he smoked up to three packs, or about 50 sticks, a day.

Another 2.5kg of contraband cigarettes were seized from a delivery driver, 35, who was spotted riding his motorcycle into a heavy-vehicle carpark in Bukit Timah.

It is not clear if he is also a peddler. Singapore Customs later said he was charged in court and that the total duties he evaded were around $1,160.

ST understands that the peddlers will be dealt with at a later date.

Those who buy, sell or deal with duty-unpaid goods can be fined up to 40 times the amount of levies evaded and jailed for up to six years.

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