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The Nation

Counterfeit Cigarettes Force Tobacco Firms to Fight Back

November 24, 2003|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

"We have had very successful cooperation with famous international tobacco companies," an agency spokesman said via e-mail. "We have special phone and fax lines to keep contact with them."

But nimble counterfeiters are good at the cat-and-mouse game. They typically operate in rural backwaters and are decentralized, with cigarettes produced in one place, packaging in another and smokes hand-packed in a third. Outlaw factories sometimes are set up in underground chambers or on hillsides, with machinery hauled in by workers or donkeys and reassembled in caves.

"It's an amazing feat, what they have done," said Mulvey of Japan Tobacco.

With unemployment high and most villagers desperately poor, local officials tend to look the other way. After raiding parties shut them down, the operations sprout again like mushrooms in the woods.

A major gateway for bogus Marlboros from China are the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. U.S. customs agents there have seized tens of millions of counterfeits in the last 18 months and have captured a few traffickers.

Arrests don't always stop them. Consider Giashian "Mike" Lin. After he was caught in April 2002 with nearly 1.97 million fake California cigarette tax stamps, which couriers had carried in their luggage through Los Angeles International Airport, agents searched his Monterey Park home. There, they said, they uncovered shipping documents linking him to about 16 million counterfeit Marlboros in shipping containers supposedly carrying furniture and china.

Despite surrendering his Taiwanese passport and pledging not to apply for a new one, Lin failed to show up for his smuggling trial in September 2002. Authorities discovered he had obtained a substitute passport and, the day before the trial, purchased a one-way ticket to Shanghai.

Lin had retreated but not retired. Two months after he skipped out, customs agents tracked millions of counterfeit Marlboros to a self-storage unit in El Monte, where they arrested two men who were loading the cigarettes into delivery cars and vans. One of the men told authorities he was working for a man who had been forced to leave for China -- Mike Lin.

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