La Crosse County prosecutors say a West African man charged this week with identity theft was using stolen credit cards to buy large quantities of Newport cigarettes they suspect were destined for the black market in New York.
Onalaska police began investigating in August after a Kwik Trip employee reported the suspect had hit stores between La Crosse and Owatonna, Minn. In each case, the well-dressed man was driving a white Ford sedan with no front plate and would back his car out of the lot after making the purchase.
He had visited two Kwik Trips in Onalaska, each time buying two cartons of smokes with separate cards. He also attempted a purchase at a Kwik Trip in Minnesota City, Minn., where an employee recognized him from an internal memo and recorded his license-plate number.
On Sept. 15, a St. Croix County deputy arrested Saikou Berry of Chicago after he was reported trying to buy Newports at a Kwik Trip there.
Inside the car, police found 15 cartons of cigarettes and 45 debit cards — 24 of them in Berry’s underpants, according to police reports.
Berry, a 37-year-old Guinean native, told police he worked for a Nigerian man who provided him with gift cards that he used to purchase cigarettes. He denied knowing the magnetic stripes had been embedded with stolen credit card numbers, according to the report.
Berry was charged Wednesday in La Crosse County Circuit Court with one count of identity theft.
Assistant District Attorney Jessica Skemp said she anticipates charging him with additional crimes. Meanwhile, Berry is in jail with a $15,000 cash bond and is scheduled to return to court for a preliminary hearing Thursday.
Prosecutors said they believe the cigarettes were destined for the black market in New York City, where the price is more than $12 a pack thanks to the highest taxes in the nation.
According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Fireams and Explosives, organized crime and even terrorist-linked organizations have been drawn to the contraband cigarette market in recent years. Over the past nine years, the ATF initiated an average of 129 investigations a year, more than three times the rate prior to 2003.
Lawrence Delevingne, a staff writer at Absolute Return, a hedge fund trade magazine, wrote about New York’s underground economy in 2008 when he was a graduate student.
He said there are two primary outlets for the illegal smokes — neighborhood grocery stores that slap on fake tax stamps and sell them at full retail price and “five dollar men” who walk around in poor neighborhoods calling out “Newports, Newports.” Individual cigarettes — or “loosies” — go for 25 to 50 cents.
It may sound like small change, but Delevingne said it’s big business.
A street vender moving 10 cartons a day can bring home $90,000 a year. Delevingne profiled one operation that was clearing an estimated $10 million a year.
Delevingne said compared to illegal drugs, black market tobacco offers a much better reward with far less risk.
“Mostly because of the laws,” he said. “And the prosecutors’ willingness to go after this. It’s not as sexy.”