A Belfast shop owner, whose store was burgled twice in a week, fears criminal gangs are targeting independent retailers as a new way of sourcing cigarettes.
Phillip O’Brien, who has run the Mace opposite the Errigle Inn on Ormeau Road for 14 years, believes the thieves who broke into his store were only after one thing.
During the first incident, on November 24, thieves broke in through the back door, ransacked the storeroom for cigarettes then made their way into the shop.
Mr O’Brien estimates they stole more than £8,500 worth of cigarettes and a sum of cash. Then, a week later, thieves again broke into his shop, stealing only cigarettes.
The incident happened during the early hours of December 2.
“I am worried it will happen again. Times are hard and people will try anything,” said Mr O’Brien
“I think what appears to be happening is that Customs and Excise are targeting criminal gangs for the counterfeit cigarettes. These people are now turning their eyes towards retailers like ourselves because their own sources are drying up. They are trying to get tobacco from other sources — people like ourselves are vulnerable now.”
A PSNI spokeswoman confirmed two burglaries had taken place at a convenience store on Ormeau Road twice on one week.
Both times cigarettes were stolen. A sum of cash was also taken on November 24, she added.
NI Independent Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts warned people against buying cigarettes from illegal sources.
“We urge the local public only to buy tobacco products from legitimate retailers,” he said. “If you buy cigarettes from illegal sources you are indirectly supporting robbery against your local community retailer.
“In the light of this robbery, NIIRTA would also urge every retailer who sells tobacco products to urgently review the security of their store.”