A sniffer dog helped uncover a large cache of illegal tobacco products hidden in behind a network of secret panels and drawers in a Blackpool convenience store.
Police and Blackpool Council public protection officers swooped on the Ryan Mini Market on Central Drive, using specially-trained sniffer dogs .
They were hunting for illegally-imported cigarettes and rolling tobacco, packets without the warning labels required by UK law and potentially harmful counterfeit tobacco.
While everything at first appeared above board on the July raid, they came across an electronic key fob which when activated and opened a secret drawer behind the counter full of the illicit products.
Then a sniffer dog alerted the team to a wall in a store room where behind a secret panel built into the brickwork they discovered more tobacco products.
Appearing at Blackpool Magistrates Court were Ishaq Mahmoodi, 30, of Charles Street, Wakefield, and Pouya Najat, 25, of the same address.
Both pleaded guilty to seven charges of possessing and supplying counterfeit tobacco products and tobacco upon which no duty had been paid.
Lynda Bennett, prosecuting, said the duo were selling £17 pouches of rolling tobacco at £8 a time and packets of 20 cigarettes which would normally cost £8, at £3.50.
“They were clearly still making a profit,” she said. “Hundreds of packets were found in these secret compartments. This was a sophisticated operation designed to stop the authorities and sniffer dogs from finding the illegal tobacco.”
Coun Gillian Campbell, deputy leader of Blackpool Council said: “The audacity of this crime is absolutely flabbergasting, and it’s only due to the hard work and perseverance of our officers that we’ve been able to bring them to justice.
“This set up was an elaborate one which has only been brought to an end due to great effort by our Trading Standards officers. Counterfeit cigarettes are no laughing matter.
“The contents of counterfeit cigarettes are completely unknown and in some cases can contain a lethal concoction of chemicals that can be extremely dangerous to your health.
“If you are offered cigarettes at a price that sounds too good to be true then the chances are that they might not be the real deal.
“If you suspect any illegal activity, report it through to (01253) 478375 and it will be investigated.”
Najat was sent for sentence at Preston Crown Court after magistrates in Blackpool heard he was to be the subject of Proceeds of Crime proceedings.
The magistrates asked for probation reports on Mahmoodi.
The court was told that in interview after the raid, Najat said he bought cheap cigarettes from a Polish man and did not know where they had come from.
Michael Hogan – solicitor for both men – said Mahmoodi was not the driving force behind the operation and was now out of work and had no money.
The lawyer said: “He is sleeping on a friend’s couch and living hand-to-mouth.
“The other defendant maintains the secret compartments were in the shop before he took over over the premises.”
Sandra Smith, assistant director of the Fraud Investigation Service at HMRC, said: “The sale of illegal tobacco and alcohol will not be tolerated by us or our partner agencies.
“Disrupting criminal trade is at the heart of our strategy to clampdown on the illicit tobacco market, which costs the UK around £2bn a year, and the sale of illicit alcohol which costs the UK around £1bn per year.
“This is theft from the taxpayer and undermines legitimate traders.
“We encourage anyone with information about the illegal sale of tobacco or alcohol to contact the Customs Hotline on 0800 59 5000.”