In the days of the Soviet Union a tourist in Moscow could pay for his or her entire trip by selling a suitcase full of smuggled Levi's jeans. Now, one could make substantially more sneaking a handbag full of the latest Apple products into Russia.
In this image conscious city, where Bentleys are so common that many owners simply curb park them, plenty of people are willing to plunk down some serious cash to be among the first in the country with the latest device.
The hot item this week is the new Apple iPhone 5, which went on sale around the world today. Apple does not have a store in Russia, however, and the company has not announced a release date for Russia. That hasn't stopped a number of enterprising individuals from purchasing them elsewhere and bringing them into the country.
A simple internet search yields a number of gray market vendors promising to have the iPhone 5 in your hands as early as tonight. But it's going to cost you.
A 16 gigabyte iPhone 5 is going for around 70,000 rubles, or about $2,200. Other vendors are quoting prices up to $3,700. That's several times what it will cost you in an Apple store in the United States, where an unlocked version retails for $649.
When ABC News called several of the vendors, each promised to deliver the device by Saturday. Several said they expected a shipment to be flown in tonight.
Asked when he could deliver an iPhone 5, one vendor who only identified himself as Dima replied confidently: "Tomorrow." He promised to have any of the phone's variations, either black or white and in any of the three sizes available. "Cash only," he said.
The vendors say they're getting overwhelmed by calls asking for the iPhone 5, outpacing demand for the new iPad when it was released earlier this year.
Another vendor named Victor say his phones are coming from France. Others said their first shipment is also coming from France, with more expected from the United States later in the week.
Each vendor insisted they were operating legally, but wouldn't say if they had paid import duties to bring them into the country. Victor said his shop would offer a two week replacement guarantee on the phones, along with the one year warranty provided by Apple. Others said it was not possible to come see the devices in person because they did not have a physical store.
The iPhone 5 uses a nano SIM card, smaller than the micro SIM used in previous models, but it appears that Russian phone companies have anticipated the phone arriving in country before it officially goes on sale. One of them promises to have nano SIM cards available by Saturday. Other companies are planning to have them available by Tuesday. One of the internet vendors also said he could produce a nano SIM card in his shop.
Even before the iPhone 5 came out, smugglers have made good money bringing in the latest devices from the United States and Europe. For example the previous Apple phone, the iPhone 4S, is available from telephone companies for just under 30,000 rubles, which is a shade under $1,000. That device also sold for $649 in the United States before today, providing a healthy profit margin for anyone willing to sneak one into the country.