Facebook is now "investigating" illegal Jersey duty-free tobacco-selling groups used to make profit by circumventing strict tax rules after being accused of failing to act on previous requests from the States to close them down, Express has learned.
Both Customs and States officials contacted the social media giant last year to seek help in shutting the illicit buying and selling networks as part of a crackdown on duty-free tobacco smugglers, but said they received no response.
However, after being approached for comment, Facebook confirmed that the groups were under investigation.
Islanders are currently allowed to bring 200 duty-free cigarettes or 250g of rolling tobacco into the Island when they travel, but it is against the law to trade any of these, as the allowance is for personal use only.
But an Express investigation last year revealed that rising impôts on tobacco, which had increased annually above the cost of living, had led thousands of islanders to frequent Facebook groups where duty-free smoking products can be bought and sold.
Despite being clearly marked with ‘for duty free sale only’ warnings, rolling tobacco pouches were offered for between £12 and £15, while cigarette multipacks combined with alcohol were able to fetch as much as £90 – prices undercutting the high street, but enough for sellers to make a profit on their duty-free purchases.
Pictured: A selection of the posts on the illegal selling sites.
The groups were not only in breach of local laws, but of Facebook’s own Commerce Policy, which states that the sale of “tobacco items and related paraphernalia” is “prohibited.” The unregulated nature of the forums – in which users were advised to delete their postings – equally sparked concerns that under-18s could use them to illegally buy such products.
Their use also meant potentially thousands being lost in duty revenue per year – money that is reinvested back into vital public services.
With border officials lacking the resources to handle each and every case, and without the power to force the closure of the groups, Steve Le Marquand, Customs and Immigration’s Director of Law Enforcement, therefore welcomed Facebook’s hard-line policy, which he had hoped to use to shut the pages down. But this was not met with a response.
“Our officers’ powers all relate to the importation of goods. We have no powers to force anyone to shut down Facebook groups. Where we discover individuals selling large quantities of tobacco on these sites, we will look to make contact with them, secure the appropriate duty and warn them appropriately. Any repeat offenders would be recommended or prosecution,” Mr Le Marquand explained.
Pictured: Customs officials can only restrict the importation of goods, but are not authorised to close the Facebook groups themselves.
“As well as trying to make contact with Facebook ourselves, we have liaised with the States of Jersey Communications Unit at Cyril Le Marquand House and requested their assistance in making contact with them on our behalf. Unfortunately like ourselves they did not receive a response.”
Customs officials have since changed tack. They identified the administrators of each of the groups, writing to them to shut the sites down. Mr Le Marquand said this had led to reduced activity.
Express found that the island’s largest tobacco-selling community with 1,512 members had admitted no new members and had not published any new advertisements within the last 30 days. Two smaller groups also showed zero activity.
Jersey's second largest, however, remains active. The 855-strong group increased its membership by 42 people within the last month. At the time of writing, there were 44 posts within the past 30 days – two of which had occurred within the past 24 hours.
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