Channel smugglers change their tactics

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BOOTLEGGERS ARE abandoning their favoured white Ford Transit vans for Volvo estates and Range Rovers in an effort to fool Customs officers into thinking they are returning from family holidays on the continent.

The cross-Channel smugglers have been forced to change tactics because Customs officers are seizing their vehicles at a rate of 60 a week. The 2,929 vehicles captured last year represented a 500 per cent increase in three years.

The organised gangs, which cost the Government nearly pounds 1bn a year in lost revenue, are even taking children and elderly relatives in order to disguise the purpose of their trips.

Norman Taylor, a senior Customs officer in the intelligence and enforcement division, based at Dover, said: "Because they have been forced out of the vans to some degree they are trying to get in with the holiday traffic."

Although many of the seized vehicles are subsequently returned to their owners on payment of a pounds 250 fine, increasing numbers are being confiscated and sold at auction by Customs.

Following a crackdown announced in April by Dawn Primarolo, the Financial Secretary, vehicles caught being used for smuggling on three occasions are automatically forfeit. But Jacqui Lait, the Tory MP, said that these measures did not go far enough. "I think it is scandalous that the vehicles are given back to the smugglers at all."

By switching from Transit vans to Volvos, Granada Ghias and four-wheel- drive vehicles, the smuggling gangs hope to reduce their visibility.

But Mr Taylor said: "The beer is so heavy that the vehicles are all back on their springs. They are bouncing along and it is often quite clear the vehicle is being used for smuggling." He said the bootleggers had also started smuggling alcohol and tobacco by freight. A single container of cigarettes would be worth around pounds 100,000 in unpaid tax.

"To be able to smuggle by freight the gangs need to find a commercial driver," said Mr Taylor. "We are looking very closely at the freight traffic to see if it's a new vehicle or a new driver or a new company."

He said lorry drivers returning from the continent were being approached by gangs to take consignments of alcohol or tobacco in empty containers or hidden among other goods.