BOOTLEG cigarettes worth £18,000 in street value have been seized following a series of raids in shops across Darlington.

More than 78,000 cigarettes and 19kg of tobacco were seized by police, council officials and sniffer dogs, as traders used increasingly clever places to hide their stash of illegal goods.

Eight stores were raided at the same time across the town under entry warrants, on Saturday, by the teams, with the help of sniffer dogs Scamp and YoYo, who sniffed out tobacco hidden in secret compartments, remote-controlled shutters, false walls and even beneath manhole covers.

Large quantities of illegal cigarettes, hand rolling tobacco and shisha were seized after being found to be either on open display under counters, in stock rooms or in some cases hidden using the sophisticated methods of concealment.

The haul included 78,000 cigarettes (3,912 packs) and 19.1kg of tobacco (382 packs), which equates to a loss in excess of £55,000 to the legitimate economy.

Investigations are now ongoing which are likely to lead to the traders involved facing prosecution, with punishments including unlimited fines and up to ten years in prison.

Shaun Trevor, Darlington Borough Council’s Fair Trading and Financial Investigations Officer, who led the operation, said: “Without the help of tobacco dogs Scamp and YoYo we would have struggled to find some of the hidden tobacco.

“Trading Standards would have been unable to undertake an operation of this scale without the assistance of other agencies, in particular Durham Police, Immigration Enforcement and our colleagues within the Community Safety Team. It was a real team effort that made the day as successful as it was.

“No arrests were made, but the businesses and individuals involved are subject to ongoing, criminal investigation. The stock has been seized from offenders."

Councillor Jonathan Dulston, Darlington Borough Council’s cabinet member for community safety, said:

“This operation was carried out and executed following vital intelligence given to trading standards and other authorities.

"Intelligence passed on to us and others will be acted upon.

“We will continue to work closely with partner agencies to tackle organised criminal activity in Darlington.”