A gang of four tobacco smugglers from Southampton, who mixed floor sweepings into their counterfeit tobacco, have been jailed for a total of 11 years and three months after an investigation by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
HMRC investigators, working with officers from Sussex Police and the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit, raided an illegal tobacco factory in John Street, Southampton, in April 2014 and seized around three tonnes of tobacco.
Tian Yang arrived as HMRC officers searched the rented three-storey town house and was arrested nearby as he attempted to get away. Yang, along with Shu Lan Lin, believed to be his partner, smuggled the raw tobacco into the UK and arranged the distribution of the counterfeit tobacco. Lin was later arrested at her home in Latimer Street, Southampton, where officers found tobacco processing equipment and £1,715 in cash.
Hua Wang and Yun Wang, who worked at the John Street house processing the tobacco, were arrested at the premises where they were also living.
At the time of their arrest both Yang and Lin were on the run, after skipping bail in connection with previous tobacco smuggling offences in 2011, when 1.1 tonnes of tobacco was smuggled into the UK hidden inside insulation boards.
HMRC officers also discovered fake duty stamps, and 380 litres of vinegar and lime cordial, used to moisten the tobacco, in the John Street house. A cement mixer which had been used to mix the product was also discovered.
CCTV on the premises, used to monitor the workers, recorded tobacco being scraped off the floor and from the soles of their shoes, before being packaged for sale.
Around three tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco was seized from the property, enough to fill 60,000 standard 50g tobacco pouches worth an estimated £612,000 in unpaid excise duty and VAT. The number of empty tobacco pouches found were enough to package five tonnes of tobacco. Officers also seized £13,730 in cash from the property.
All four were charged the following day with the fraudulent evasion of excise duty, and remanded in custody. Hua Wang and his wife Yun Wang pleaded guilty at a hearing in July 2014 at Southampton Crown Court. Tian Yang and Shu Lan Lin pleaded not guilty but were later convicted by a jury of evading tobacco duty, following a three week trial at Southampton Crown Court.
Upon sentencing on 30 October 2014 His Honour Judge Henry, said: “I am in no doubt that I am dealing with a large scale professional organisation, which has over a number of years evaded a large amount of duty and VAT on excise goods. No doubt with substantial profits going to those running the organisation.”
Tian Yang was sentenced to four years and six months in jail and Shu Lan Lin to three years and nine months in jail. The judge said he had reduced her sentence because she was mother to a very young baby born in prison. Hua Wang and Yun Wang were each sentenced to 18 months in jail.
John Cooper, assistant director, criminal investigation, HMRC, said: “These criminals were producing counterfeit tobacco in totally unhygienic conditions, for sale to unsuspecting smokers. They were selling a cheap product, undercutting legitimate retailers who cannot compete with these unregulated sales.
“Tobacco fraud costs the UK economy around £2bn each year. We urge anyone with information about the illegal importation, production or sale of tobacco to contact the Customs Hotline on 0800 595000.”