A smuggler's route: Illegal cigarettes in Md.

Posted at 7:22 PM, Feb 10, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-10 23:34:28-05

Bill George is the lead investigator for the field enforcement division of the comptrollers office.  George and his team try to catch smugglers who buy cigarettes out of state and try to sell them in Maryland, bypassing the tax due to Maryland residents.

George says this lost tax revenue is significant every year, "I estimate in the millions of dollars."

Here's how it works: a pack of cigarettes cost relatively the same, but each state adds their tax, which changes the price from state to state. 

In  Virginia a carton of Newport's cost about $35. In Maryland that same carton cost $68 dollars, because Maryland tobacco taxes are higher than Virginia. In the highest taxed area in the country, New York City, a carton of Newport's cost a whopping $134.

A smuggler would buy a carton of cigarettes in Virginia, sell it on the black market in Maryland and make about $30 and pocket the money.

At the Maryland/Virginia border, you can find a half dozen tobacco outlet stores.

"It draws a tremendous amount of Marylanders coming to purchase cigarettes for themselves and it's very convenient for the smugglers coming from northern states," George said.

The comptrollers enforcement team is looking for people bringing smuggled cigarettes to Maryland. One Maryland women was caught with 17 cartons of cigarettes, more than three times the legal limit.

"We'll take your cigarettes and you'll have a court date in a couple of months."

Those confiscated cigarettes go to a property room in the basement of the comptrollers office. There are five rooms just like it.

It's not just your average smoker trying to get one over the government.

"A significant number of them at the highest volume are organized crime groups that are making huge amounts of money," George said. "Frequently we have suspects that are on the terrorist watch list."

When they bust organized crime members and terrorists, officers seize hundreds of cartons worth thousands of dollars. 

Last year an Ocean City resident, Basel Ramadan, was convicted in New York of smuggling cigarettes.

Authorities say Ramadan profited more than $10 million from illegal cigarettes and skirted $80 million in taxes. 

After his arrest, police found $1.5 million in cash in his Ocean City home and seized more than 20,000 cartons of untaxed cigarettes.

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