International Cigarette Smuggling Operation Up In Smoke

Seattle police and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms have broken up an international cigarette smuggling operation following a year-long investigation, which began in downtown Seattle.

The investigation began when a man tried to sell cigarettes, illegally imported from Vietnam, to a Seattle police officer in Pioneer Square, according to federal and local law enforcement sources.

Police and the ATF discovered the cigarettes were being sold all over Seattle, but the investigation eventually led authorities to a store on 12th and Jackson in the International District, which was also allegedly involved in food stamp fraud.

We’re working to get more details, but sources say the investigation expanded across the country–both along the east and west coast–and eventually led authorities to Vietnam.

We’ll have more details as we get them.

Update:

Here’s the official release from the ATF:

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Seattle Field Division, together with the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIC), the United States Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General (USDA-OIG), the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB), announced today a large scale law enforcement operation involving the execution of multiple search and seizure warrants in connection with the illegal trafficking of contraband cigarettes in Seattle and Western Washington.  The ATF and participating agencies executed 14 federal search warrants for violations of federal law involving the illegal possession, sale and distribution of contraband cigarettes originating in Vietnam.  15 federal search and seizure warrants were also executed on vehicles identified as being utilized in connection with the illegal cigarette trafficking activities.

ATF’s investigation began as a result of information obtained from WSLCB which included several individuals identified as possessing and/or trafficking in Vietnamese contraband cigarettes.  While the case by ATF initially focused on individuals selling contraband Vietnamese cigarettes at the street level, the USPIS and ICE later joined the investigation as large quantities of contraband cigarettes were identified as being mailed from Vietnam into the U.S., and specifically into the greater Seattle area.

The contraband Vietnamese cigarettes identified during this investigation and imported as part of this scheme, do not bear valid State of Washington tax stamps.  Since the cigarettes are not legally imported or legally manufactured in the United States, applicable federal taxes that would normally be due on them are not paid.  Further, because state and federal taxes are not paid on the cigarettes, they are sold for much less than legal cigarettes sold at retail.  As a result, this deprives both state and federal governments of tax revenue.  Conservative calculations from this investigation estimate a total loss of revenue by both state and federal governments of over $24,000,000.00.

Trafficking in contraband cigarettes deceives and defrauds consumers and steals income from legitimate businesses,” said ATF Special Agent in Charge, Kelvin Crenshaw. “The execution of today’s search warrants represents a commitment by both ATF and its partners to identify, investigate and pursue individuals that would look to commit schemes that defraud our governments and ultimately rob our communities.  We will continue to aggressively pursue those who violate federal law and defraud the state of Washington.”

The ATF also received assistance during this investigation by the United States Attorney’s Office, the United States Marshals Service and the Seattle Police Department.

ATF’s primary goal in tobacco enforcement is to enforce the federal laws relating to tobacco diversion and protect the revenue of the federal and state governments.  ATF is the federal law enforcement agency with primary jurisdiction over the Contraband Cigarette Trafficking Act (CCTA) to stop tobacco diversion. More information on ATF and its programs is available atwww.atf.gov.