Counterfeit tobacco sniffed out in Wolverhampton raids
Stashed away in secret compartments, hidden under trap doors, stored in deep freezers – just some of the lengths shopkeepers are going to to hide illegal cigarettes from the watchful eyes of the law.
But the game was up for traders in Wolverhampton this week when raids by trading standards officers saw more than 40,000 dodgy smokes seized.
Officers and specialist sniffer dogs swooped on three stores in the Whitmore Reans and Blakenhall areas of the city, coming away with a monster haul of fake and non-duty paid cigarettes and alcohol worth £320,000. The loss of revenue on the items was £259,000.
In one of the raids – part of a continuing crackdown across Wolverhampton – a substantial amount of illegal tobacco was found hidden deep beneath the shop counter.
In another shop, a secret compartment in the stock room was being used to store outlawed tobacco. Two crates of fake vodka were found in another.
The hauls were found by the sniffer dogs.
Drugs, explosives and tobacco search dog specialist, Stuart Phillips said the animals have a natural ability to trace and track smells which a human cannot.
"During the operation I am looking for any changes of behaviour the dog makes inside the store," he said. "If their behaviour changes in any way it means they can smell something which acts an indicator to us."
In total, the raids unearthed eight large bags packed with what officers believe is illegal tobacco and alcohol.
Debra Craner, Trading Standards district officer, led the operation.
She said it was alarming to see the lengths shop owners go to to hide their counterfeit goods. "The most interesting thing about the find is how much counterfeit tobacco is actually hidden," she said. "The amount found has surprised us but what we have found even more surprising is how sophisticated and savvy these traders are getting in terms of hiding the goods.
"The evidence we have will now be examined by experts and then the owners will be invited for interview and questions will be put to them. This could result in a licence review which could see their licence taken away from them or even prosecution."
She also praised the role of the sniffer dogs, which she says are crucial to the success of such operations.
"We would have never found this tobacco without these detection dogs," she added. "Without their help it would have been very difficult for us to find the tobacco. They are brilliant to work with."
The names and exact locations of the stores raided cannot be named for legal reasons.
In a similar series of raids earlier this month, around £15,000 of fake and non-duty paid cigarettes and alcohol were seized from stores. And last year, Operation Henry brought in illegal tobacco products with a street value of more than £57,000.
The operation followed complaints by residents to the city council regarding the sale of counterfeit goods.
Amrit Jhumat, compliance officer for Trading Standards, said: "Traders are evolving and adapting the way they are hiding counterfeit tobacco – they are going deeper and deeper.
"They think we go in and won't be able to find it because it is all concealed. But the dogs used can help us out with this."
The raids come just weeks after the Express & Star's own investigation found the tobacco black market is widespread throughout the Black Country.
It uncovered how easy it was for someone to get their hands on illicit and dangerous tobacco for just a fraction of the cost of the real thing. Out of 27 shops visited, all but two were found to be breaking the law.
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