Customs officers arrest contraband cigarette buyers

He thought he was doing his colleagues a favour by collating orders and fulfilling them - except the orders were for contraband cigarettes.

He was among six men - five Chinese nationals and one Malaysian aged between 32 and 43 - arrested in an enforcement operation by Singapore Customs on Tuesday, which targeted those who bought duty-unpaid cigarettes from online peddlers.

A total of 9.8kg, or 40 cartons, 85 packets and 116 sticks, of duty-unpaid cigarettes were seized in the operation. The total duty as well as goods and services tax evaded amounted to about $4,500.

Three of the men arrested have been charged. Investigations are ongoing for the others.

Another 11 men - six Chinese nationals and five Malaysians - were issued composition fines ranging from $500 to $5,000.

Customs officers were able to track down the buyers from the digital footprint of peddlers who were arrested earlier this month.

The Straits Times accompanied the officers on Tuesday afternoon. At an industrial building in Second Chin Bee Road, four men were led out by Customs officers into vans.

One of them, a Chinese national in his 50s, bought 44 packets of "Double Happiness" cigarettes - a made-in China brand - from his colleague, who got them from an online seller.

"Contraband cigarettes are much cheaper... They cost $5 to $6 a pack compared with $13 for regular cigarettes, which I can't afford," said the arrested man.

He received a $4,800 fine, nearly three months of his salary. He was given two weeks to pay. If he fails to pay the composition fine, a court fine may be imposed. Failure to pay could lead to an order to attend court.

Mr Chua Teck Hui, head of Singapore Customs' suppression and community engagement branch, said that due to the pandemic more peddlers and buyers are using platforms such as WeChat to buy and sell duty-unpaid cigarettes.

"Some offenders were prosecuted in court, while others were given heavy composition fines. Foreigners will be repatriated after prosecution," he said.

This article first appeared in The Straits Times.