PHILADELPHIA- WTXF - Quick, fast and they hit you hard.....that's the way veteran detectives describe this group of stealthy thieves that have taken our area by storm. They've hit 15 times in Philadelphia and Bucks County in recent weeks, making off with tens of thousands of dollars in cigarettes under the cover of darkness.
"By the time the alarm goes off, the police are on the way, they're gone."
Jeff Brown knows the sting of these masked bandits all too well, They busted into his store on franklin mills circle twice and got away scott free.
"They busted the glass on the front door, went in, got the cigarettes, got some cash on the way out and got some beers.
These carefully disguised bandits have spent the past two months breaking into gas stations, big name pharmacies like Walgreens and beer stores where hundreds of cartons of cigarettes costing $90 to a hundred dollars a carton have been stolen.
"They're in and out in a few second and load them into a U-haul truck."
In this burglary, caught on surveillance cameras, two suspects placed free standing signs in front of this Philly gas station on Bustleton Avenue in the Northeast, broke through the front door, crawled inside and began methodically loading cartons of cigarettes into 55-gallon trash cans. They made off with over $9,000 in cigarettes.
"it's almost like they're going in for demolition.They're reselling them, they're reselling them but probably out of state, somewhere, like a black market, yeah a black market.
Jeff Brown owns the beer store near the Philadelphia Mills Mall. His store was robbed twice in 18 days. The suspects pulled up in front in a U-haul truck, broke through the glass front door and ransacked the place, stealing over $2,000 in cigarettes and cash, not to mention the damage.
"It's not the money, It's the mess to clean up the glass all over the floor and to be open by nine o'clock and nobody know we were ever hit.
"It's been an issue over the last couple months, as you know this stuff is worth thousands if not millions depending upon the organizations you're involved with."
Bensalem police say the cigarette bandits have struck more than half a dozen times there, including the Bensalem Farm Market and three times at this 76 gas station on Knights Road.
"A lot of them being sold out of back of cars, the streets, kinda the black market.It's quick cash, no questions asked," Director Fred Harran of Bensalem Township Police said.
Harran says his detectives have arrested one suspect already and are carefully tracking others while building a case against them. Police are using surveillance video, finger prints, even DNA to track down the elusive thieves.
"You're leaving your DNA behind anywhere you go. If we ca get DNA off a product we'll do it."
"Anytime where they can make money, criminals will look to take advantage of that."
Agent Steve Bartholomew of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says stealing cigarettes by the carton is a $10 billion dollar a year problem nationwide. Big time ripoffs have been occurring across the country, now these big time burglaries have come to our area.
"It goes from the lawful market to the black market, which drives the price and the profits for these individuals, probably making two hundred times what they would on a pack of cigarettes."
So what happens to all these stolen cigarettes once they disappear off Philadelphia and Bucks County store shelves in the middle of the night? Investigators say they end up on the black market being resold on the streets, peddled to mom and pop stores or even sold to big time criminal organizations.
"That's not shocking. There's other things over the years that they've found a niche to, when they find a niche, they do it until we can shut it down. The victims of these crimes of illegal cigarette trafficking are the consumers, the merchants and the taxpayers"
Police say it's not unusual to find stolen cigarettes sold right out of the pack for a buck a piece at local transportation hubs. These entrepreneurial thieves call them "loosies" ,as in loose cigarettes, or "onesies" as in one at a time. Black market traffickers don't have to pay the steep taxes on cigarettes and can make up to $20 a pack selling them like that.
"They'll sell one cigarette for a dollar or fifty cents, 75 cents..."
Federal authorities have gone as far as saying that the multi-billion dollar stolen cigarette trafficking business now rivals drug dealing as a means for terrorist groups to raise money for the purchase of firearms and explosives. Experts say groups like al Qaeda, Hamas, even Irish Republican Army have used funds from illegal cigarette trafficking, not to mention the Russian and Italian mob.
"They use it to fund other illegal activities..
All this leads back to the impact on our area. Investigators say trafficking in stolen or black market cigarettes hurts taxpayers, local government and business owners like Jeff Brown.
"He took every pack of cigarettes in the store. big loss, very big loss. It's obviously an issue and now we're seeing it here where we weren't before. People are making a ton of money off it, but at other people's demise."
Philadelphia Police and detectives from Bucks County have now formed a task force to address these big ripoffs, more arrests are expected soon. But investigators admit there is no quick fix to solving this billion dollar problem.