MORE than half a million pounds worth of illegal tobacco has been found in three Newport shops, making it the biggest haul of illicit tobacco ever seized by trading standards officers in the city.
The Argus accompanied the council’s trading standards team as they carried out an investigation revealing the lengths some retailers will go to have a part in the illegal of tobacco smuggling.
Thousands of cigarettes were found hidden beneath floorboards, behind fake walls and in secret compartments.
The premises visited on Wednesday, had been listed as high priority to the officers, due to anonymous intelligence they had received about the presence of illegal tobacco and past test purchasing investigations, including those carried out by the Argus.
Operation Husky targeted four premises in one area of Newport, with a team of officers entering them simultaneously.
Illegal tobacco - illicit-whites, counterfeit and contraband - was found in three of them.
For the first time, the Newport trading standards team were joined by a specially trained tobacco detection dog and its handler.
In two of the premises, Phoebe the dog soon alerted officers to the area behind the shop counter. In both instances a false panel was removed from the bottom of the counter to reveal tightly packed boxes and pouches of tobacco and cigarettes.
In one instance a plug socket with a phone charger plugged into it was attached to the outer panel - despite there being no wiring.
The secret compartments were controlled by a switch hidden under the counter, which released a sophisticated magnetic locking system.
A search to the back of the property revealed a store room and a basement storage space – both of which were sealed by steel doors and had to be broken into be a locksmith – to have boxes of illegal tobacco, including Jin Lings, L&Ms and Amber Leaf.
In the second premises, the secret stash of goods was found behind a row of shelves and a fake wall. Concealed behind crates of soft drinks was a hole barely big enough to crawl through which opened up into an under-the-stairs compartment piled high with boxes of illegal tobacco.
In the final premises rows of illegal packets and pouches were found beneath screwed down floor panels in a back stock room. This was again unlocked via a switch under the counter at the front of the shop.
In both these instances, officers said the stashes would have never been found without the indication from the dog.
Dog handler, Stuart Phillips, said the amount in each shop was the most his dog had ever found in a store. He said: “This is phenomenal. I’ve never seen this quantity in any other shops in the UK.”
Similar brands of illicit products were found in all three premises. Legal tobacco was also for sale in all of the shops.
All products were bagged up and seized by the officers. CCTV footage was also seized from the premises. The products are estimated to have retail value in excess of £500,000 if they were to be sold legitimately.
The trading standards officer who cannot be named for security reasons, who led the team on Wednesday, said: “It was a great success.”
“It’s a massive haul. It’s more than we thought. We were surprised by the amount, but also where and how they stored it. There were high tech systems to conceal it.
“We’ve never used a dog before. There’s no way that would have been detected in a normal inspection.”
Operations into illegal tobacco in Newport began in August of last year, with yesterday being a follow-up investigation.
On October 7, 2013, Newport Mini Markets of Chepstow Road, Newport, was fined £3,200 by Cwmbran magistrates after trading standards found 10 packets of Jin Lings, 10 packets of Palace cigarettes and four blocks of Al Fakher shisha tobacco.
This is minuscule in proportion to the thousands of packs found on Wednesday. All of the premises found to have illegal tobacco on Wednesday were aware they were already being investigated for this by trading standards.
“They clearly have made the decision that money was to be made, irrespective of the consequences. They thought it was worth the risk,” said the trading standards officer.
“Our next step is to collate evidence and then get them in for interview and proceed to prosecution.”
The officer believed the situation uncovered this week in just three shops, is likely to be replicated in other parts of the city. She said: “There must be more.
“I don’t think it’s even been an issue on this scale before in Newport. We’ve been aware of an increase in the last 12 months.”
Anyone with information about tobacco smuggling and people selling illegal tobacco, can call HMRC’s customs hotline on 0800 59 5000 or trading standards on 01633 656656.