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Greek petrol stations are fighting theft, unreasonable fines and smuggling

08 February 2012 / 21:02:27  GRReporter
5272 reads

Victoria Mindova

Owners of petrol stations in Greece have become warriors on several fronts. Besides the high tax burden and the 30-percent decline in turnover compared to 2010, petrol station owners and their employees have become the number one target of thieves. According to the Greek press, at least two stations a day become the target of thieves, because these commercial sites along with news and tobacco stands are considered the easiest to plunder. This week, police have captured a group of Albanians who committed 25 thefts at petrol stations in Athens and Thessaloniki in the last six months. All are young people aged between 24-28 years who have specialized in this type of robbery, using powerful motorcycles to escape quickly from the place of robbery. Most petrol station owners have equipped their sites with indoor surveillance cameras, which has helped in the capture of the thieves but the businessmen say that the most dangerous robbers in Greece are not Albanian groups, but the state itself.

A few months ago, about 3,500 petrol station owners in the country found themselves fined with between 50,000 to one million euro for late entry of accounting data. The exorbitant amounts are the result of an administrative error, which, according to experts in the sector, will not be corrected due to lack of political will. The error is evident, but nobody is willing to correct it because that would reveal other weaknesses in the system, says the branch organization of petrol station owners.  

"You should know that if you take a petrol station owner and all of his property, he will not be able to pay the fines imposed anyway," the chairman of the organization of petrol station owners Harris Mavrakis stressed. According to Greek legislation, excise duty on heating fuel is lower than transport fuel excise duty as part of the social policy of the country.  With the introduction of the IFESTOS system in 2008, retailers purchased heating fuel at the higher excise duty like that on transport fuel and then, the state returned the difference within ten days. Petrol station owners registered the sales in the electronic online system IFESTOS on the base of which the Ministry of Finance returned the difference of the excise tax.

As of 1 January 2011, the state changed the system of trade and distribution of fuel. As a result, retailers were not obliged to purchase the heating fuel burdened with the higher excise duty equal to the excise duty on diesel fuel for transport and the return of the indirect tax difference was repealed. After the changes, many of the petrol station owners were not informed that they must continue to enter in the IFESTOS system monthly data on the sales and purchases of fuel, because the tax return had already been cancelled. In the meantime, the Ministry of Finance has made a new website of the IFESTOS system on which petrol stations owners have to enter the data on purchased and sold fuels.

Most of the victims were not informed of the change of the website of the system and continued to use the old address, where the data was not reported, however. Representatives of the industry insist that the change was made halfway. With it, the Ministry of Finance did not make the necessary changes in the code of practice of customs, which had been the supervisor, controlling fuel inflows and outflows of petrol stations.

"After the cancellation of the return of the difference between the excise duties on heating and transport fuel we have stopped entering data into the IFESTOS system. It turned out to be a violation of the code of accounting books and records, not of the customs code," said Rousakis Christodoulos who owns a petrol station on the island of Crete and 2011 was his first year as an entrepreneur. After the Ministry of Finance cancelled the excise duty return, he did not enter online the data on the purchased and sold fuel for three months although he was bookkeeping it. After Roussos became aware that he had to continue reporting, he entered the data for the last three months all in one go. During the tax inspection, tax officials found out that the company bookkeeping was correct and said that he had nothing to worry about. Entering the data with a delay, however, was taken as a prerequisite for illegal trade and the young entrepreneur was imposed a fine of almost 400,000 euro.

Currently, the trade union of petrol station owners and fuel retailers insists that the Ministry of Development and Competitiveness should freeze the payment of fines. The violations should be perceived as administrative omissions rather than as illegal trade and should be transferred to the code of accounting books and records. "The inspection by local tax and customs officers has showed that my bookkeeping is correct and there are no violations. The delay in entering the data in IFESTOS, however, is a violation of an administrative nature and not a prerequisite for illegal trade. Tax officials are on our side and understand the problem, but until the National Assembly resolves the issue legislatively, we will face paying xcessive fines," Roussos admits.

Like the monkeys’ "I did not hear – I did not see – I did not understand," the problem remains unresolved. The government does not hear the cry of petrol station owners who insist on revising the issue. The 3,500 victims have found themselves in this situation because they were not aware that they had to continue to enter data in IFESTOS and people cannot understand who is right and who is wrong in all the mess.

Until it becomes clear whether the levels of penalty fees will be frozen or revised, the Ministry of Finance has confessed that Greece is losing almost a billion euro each year from the sale of smuggled fuel. "There is no political will to tackle these phenomena. Three laws requiring the installation of control devices in all levels of the supply chain have been voted for the past ten years, but none of them has been applied in practice," said Harris Mavrakis. Fuel smuggling is particularly strong in northern Greece, where tanks have easy access to Bulgaria and Macedonia, where the fuel is significantly cheaper due to lower taxation. Insiders explained that the most common practices are for empty tanks to submit full documentation as if they export to Bulgaria. Then, they return to Greece with cheap fuel. "As you can understand, the implementation of all this assumes the involvement of people not only from our sector, but also from the public administration, customs and tax services," said a member of the organization. He also added pointedly, "The question remains, because although the Ministry of Finance is aware that it is losing almost one billion from illegal fuel trade it has not introduced a common control system for the trade activities from the refinery to the car. Who benefits from smuggling?"

Tags: EconomySmugglingGreeceFuelExcise dutyFines
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