Six men arrested for buying contraband cigarettes from online peddlers

One of the men arrested in an enforcement operation (left) and a Singapore Customs officer is seen leaving an apartment during the operation, carrying a few cartons of seized duty-unpaid cigarettes (right).
One of the men arrested in an enforcement operation (left) and a Singapore Customs officer is seen leaving an apartment during the operation, carrying a few cartons of seized duty-unpaid cigarettes (right).ST PHOTOS: ZAIHAN MOHAMED YUSOF

SINGAPORE - He thought he was doing his colleagues a favour by consolidating orders and fulfilling them - except that 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 (April 13) 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 and goods and services tax (GST) evaded amounted to about $4,500.

Three of the men arrested have been charged in court while 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 enforcement officers on Tuesday afternoon.

At an industrial building in Second Chin Bee Road, four men in blue-collared shirts were led out by Customs officers into vans, where they were informed about the offence they had committed.

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

The cigarettes were found in the Chinese national's locker at his workplace.

"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 man.

He received a $4,800 fine, an amount equivalent to nearly three months of his salary. He was given two weeks to pay the fine.

If he fails to pay the composition fine, a court fine may be imposed. Failure to pay that 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 social media platforms such as WeChat and Telegram 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.

But this does not mean that street peddling has disappeared, a Customs spokesman said, adding that officers would continue to mount operations to counter such activities.

He also said smokers buying contraband cigarettes online tended to order in the range of a few cartons as peddlers would require a minimum quantity before agreeing to arrange for delivery.


The six men arrested comprise five Chinese nationals and one Malaysian aged between 32 and 43. ST PHOTO: ZAIHAN MOHAMED YUSOF

The transaction quantity for street peddling is more varied, ranging from a single packet to a few cartons.

Customs said that buying, selling, conveying, delivering, storing, keeping, having in possession or dealing with duty-unpaid goods are serious offences under the Customs Act and the GST Act.

Offenders can be fined up to 40 times the amount of duty and GST evaded, jailed for up to six years, or both. Vehicles used in committing such offences can be seized.