An Astoria woman was arrested recently after state and federal agents conducted a sting operation and allegedly caught her with more than $300,000 worth of counterfeit cigarette tax stamps at her apartment, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said Monday.
Aleya Begum, of 23-07 41st St., was charged with criminal possession of a forged instrument and cigarette and tobacco products tax violations after she accepted a package delivered to her apartment allegedly containing the stamps, Brown said. She faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Cigarette tax stamps are affixed to each package of cigarettes to prove taxes on it have been paid.
Michael J. Hartofilis, Begums attorney, denied the charges, saying that though the package was sent to Begums apartment, it was not addressed to her.
Patrick Clark, a spokesman for the district attorneys office, confirmed that Begums name was not on the package, but said there was enough criminal evidence to indicate her guilt.
Since the city raised taxes on cigarettes from 8 cents to $1.50, law enforcement authorities have been keeping an eye on such alleged operations with forged tax stamps and cigarette smuggling schemes, Brown said.
With the increase of many New York City retail outlets to $7.50 for a pack of cigarettes, attempts to evade, federal, state, and local taxes already a multimillion-dollar industry are likely to intensify, Brown said.
The investigation into Begum, who runs a small convenience store in Ditmars, began Aug. 9 when U.S. Customs agents in Miami intercepted a suspicious package sent from Paraguay allegedly on its way to Begums apartment, Brown said.
The package was opened two days later in Manhattan where agents found two rolls of brown waxed paper, one of which contained more than 100,000 cigarette stamps. The stamps were tested under ultraviolet light and determined to be counterfeit, Brown said.
On Aug. 14, undercover agents delivered the package to Begun, 39, who allegedly accepted and signed for it, Brown said. Minutes later agents executed a search warrant at her apartment, seizing the stamps, a list of cigarette orders, and several credit card swiping machines.
Hartofilis said that since the package was not addressed to Begum the agents should not have arrested her for taking it. She only accepted the package because she wanted to get rid of the agents, who were badgering her to sign for it, he said.
When agents searched her convenience store, Moonstar Candy and Grocery at 28-05 Ditmars Ave., they found nothing illegal, Hartofilis said.
Begum is out of jail on $5,000 bond and expected to appear in Queens Supreme Court Aug. 28, Clark said.
Reach reporter Brendan Browne by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 155.
©2002 Community News Group
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