Victims of the booze bandits

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The Independent Online
It's the cheapest way to get your hands on cut-priced alcohol and cigarettes from across the Channel. Wait for smugglers of contraband to bring it back to Britain - and then steal their load.

Gangs of thieves are working along the South Coast, targeting bootleggers and making off with crates of wine, beer, cigarettes and tobacco.

On Friday, three middle-aged men from Grimsby had their transit van, filled with such a load, broken into in Dover while they slept in bed and breakfast accommodation. The shipment was due to be taken to the north of England and sold at a discount to markets, pubs, and out of the back of vehicles. It was the fourth time in six months the gang had had the tables turned on them, but they have not reported any of the incidents to the police. Like the owners of other illegal shipments, they do not reveal the thefts because they themselves fear prosecution.

Garages in South Coast ports have, however, reported many such break- ins and hijackings; they hear of them because they repair the damaged vehicles.

One company which has also spotted this new trend is windscreen repair company Autoglass. Its office in Dover has been dealing with about one case a week for the past six months.

An insider, working in Dover, said yesterday that thieves were targeting groups of men who often did as many as two or three trips to French hypermarkets to pick up cheap goods and bring them back to Britain to sell illegally. He added that it was easy to obtain tobacco and alcohol in Dover from smugglers who were selling them at about 30 per cent less than British retail prices.

An example of the scale of current fraud was illustrated by the conviction last Friday of Ellis Martin, 37, a millionaire who masterminded Britain's biggest cross-Channel bootlegging operation. He was jailed for six years and 10 months at the Old Bailey and told he would have to pay a pounds 3.32m assets confiscation order. He brought in nearly nine million cans of superstrength lager and defrauded Customs and Excise out of almost pounds 5m duty and VAT.

A spokeswoman for Kent police said: "If people are not reporting these crimes, then it's hard to do anything about it."