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Teen goes undercover to catch illegal tobacco sellers

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Jessica Wood understands better than most how easy it is for minors to purchase alcohol and tobacco in Virginia. When she was 15, she had an unusual part-time job – helping undercover agents bust retailers who sell such products to minors.

For the next year and a half, Wood spent many weekends engaging in activities that could have come from a spy novel:

She would meet with a special agent (usually an undercover police officer hired by the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control) once a month. They would travel all over the state, often to locations where complaints had been lodged by the public.

Wood said she would work three to 10 hours a day, entering stores and trying to buy products that she wasn’t old enough to purchase. She often caught stores violating the law.

“There was at least one caught every time I went out,” said Wood, now 20.

Wood, a Richmond native and student at Western Governors University, was one of thousands of teens who have participated in Virginia’s Underage Buyer Program. The ABC hires young people for the program.

Some might think that being an undercover operative would be nerve-racking, but Wood said the process was actually simple. She said she would just go into a store and try to buy cigarettes, beer or other age-restricted products without presenting an ID.

She wasn’t worried because there was always an undercover agent in the establishment with her. In fact, she said her job was sort of fun.

Once Wood successfully purchased alcohol or tobacco products, she was required to turn over the product to the agent as evidence. Wood said she usually did not have to testify in cases involving tobacco sales. But she estimated that she testified 20-30 times about alcohol sales.

“The ABC Board has a hearing court, so I testified 100 percent of the time if there was an alcohol offense,” Wood said.

The penalties for violators are severe. She said the ABC files administrative charges against the establishment. The agency can suspend the business’ liquor license and assess civil penalties. It also can file criminal charges against the clerk who sold the products.

Wood will soon turn 21, when she can legally purchase alcohol. She said she thinks the program is an effective way to keep alcohol and tobacco products out of the hands of minors. She said she enjoyed participating in the program.

“Overall, the experience was great. The agents were really nice, and it was really easy money,” Wood said. “I would definitely recommend the program to other kids.”

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