Illegal value-added tax payments refunded to 66 companies in northern Greece have cost the State a hefty 45 million euros, the Finance Ministry said yesterday. Calling it «a scandal,» Deputy Finance Minister Apostolos Fotiadis said the 47 firms, all of which are in the export trade, had colluded with tax and customs officers in defrauding the State. He said the tax office refunded 23 million euros in value-added taxes to the companies after they presented fake export receipts worth a total of 323 million euros. Fotiadis said the financial crimes squad, which uncovered the misdeeds after an investigation of several months, had already forwarded the cases to prosecutors in Thessaloniki. «The State is due to levy fines exceeding 235 million euros on these offenders,» he said. In the meantime, the probe has expanded to another 19 companies, which received refunds worth 21.7 million euros from the State after falsely declaring exports valued at 240 million euros. Fotiadis said some 50 tax and customs officers in the northern Greece division had allegedly helped the companies defraud the State. They could lose their jobs and even face criminal charges. Seeking to minimize the fallout from the fraud scandal, the ministry has transferred five tax officers from the Thessaloniki prefecture out of the region. In addition, it plans to tighten procedures concerning VAT refunds. «Tax offices will now conduct rigorous checks on VAT returns exceeding 3,000 euros with the exception of those paid by wage earners and farmers,» Fotiadis said. In line with the government’s crackdown on corruption and tax evasion, the ministry recently shifted five employees out of the Aigiou tax office following complaints of bribery. Prosecutors are currently looking into the cases. Two other officers in the northern Greece tax office were posted to another region because of lengthy delays in issuing fines and taxes on a well-known Thessaloniki firm. Attica tax officers were also recently rotated to other branches. Reporting on the government’s revenue-raising efforts to date, Fotiadis said dividend payouts from state-controlled enterprises in August had contributed to a 9.1-percent jump in ordinary revenues in the first eight months of the year and a 7.5-percent surge in ordinary budget revenues. Dividends from telecommunications operator OTE, the Postal Savings Bank and electricity utility PPC amounted to 270 million euros. VAT payments rose by 10 percent and income tax revenues by 6.5 percent in the January-to-August period. The yield from stock market transactions was down 47 percent. The government is aiming for a 6.1-percent increase in ordinary budget revenues this year against a 5.6-percent rise in expenditure.