Law enforcement authorities from 15 EU Member States* and the UK teamed up last month to dismantle a criminal network illegally trading cigarettes. Supported by Europol and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the joint operation took place between 2 and 13 November 2020. Led by the customs departments of Lithuania and the UK, the operation was facilitated by intelligence analysis of excise duty suspension abuse. The fraud scheme consisted of illegally diverting cigarettes from EU internal and external transit customs procedures to the black market without paying millions in taxes.
The operation led to:
- 17 suspects arrested;
- 67 million cigarettes and 2.6 tonnes of tobacco seized worth €35.82 million, with 88% of the cigarettes seized produced in Belarus;
- the most significant seizures of the illegally traded cigarettes were made in Lithuania (28.75 million), the UK (9 million), Poland (6 million), Ireland (3.5 million), Romania (2.2 million), Sweden (500 000), Latvia (740 000) and Croatia (150 000);
- Ten vehicles seized in eight of the participating countries.
Excise duty fraud mechanism
This joint operation targeted a fraud mechanism of duty suspension abuse:
- cigarettes produced inside the EU and declared for export or intra-EU delivery were moved under VAT and excise suspension. However, the goods never left EU customs territory or were not delivered within the EU as indicated in customs procedures and the relevant documents;
- cigarettes withdrawn from transit regime or released into free circulation in the EU under VAT and excise suspension were distributed illegally without payment of these taxes and duties.
Europol and OLAF support
Europol and OLAF actively supported the operation. Europol facilitated the cross-border cooperation among Member States, set up preparatory operational meetings, enabled information exchange and cross-checks and provided analytical support and operational expertise. During the operation, OLAF also provided the tools for a secure exchange of information between the customs authorities and monitored and crosschecked the information exchanged.
Headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands, Europol supports the 27 EU Member States in their fight against terrorism, cybercrime and other serious and organised forms of crime. We also work with many non-EU partner states and international organisations. From its various threat assessments to its intelligence-gathering and operational activities, Europol has the tools and resources it needs to do its part in making Europe safer. In 2019, Europol supported 1 874 international operations.
*Participating EU Member States: Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Sweden.