A Sunderland gang who made a 'shameful attempt' to smuggle almost 800,000 illegal cigarettes into the UK from Kuwait have been slammed by customs officials.
The five, four men and a woman, were caught with suitcases full of non-UK duty paid cigarettes at Newcastle and Heathrow airports, an investigation by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) revealed.
Border Force officers seized 206,600 cigarettes from suitcases belonging to the gang between November 2017 and March 2018.
The case was passed to HMRC who found the gang travelled to Kuwait on a number of occasions and illegally imported another 592,247 cigarettes.
* Ethan Hyden, 28, of Willow Road, Houghton, who was sentenced to one year in prison, suspended for two years; 175 hours unpaid work and a three month curfew.
* Leon Halliman, 21, of Windermere Street, who was sentenced to one year in prison, suspended for two years; 250 hours unpaid work and a four month curfew.
* Callum Haggerton, 20, of Scruton Avenue, who was sentenced to nine months in prison, suspended for two years; 200 hours unpaid work and a three month curfew.
* Gabrielle Joyce, 22, of Gardiner Road, who was sentenced to one year in prison, suspended for two years; 200 hours unpaid work and a four month curfew.
* Steven Parry, 50, of Oakfield Close, East Herrington, who was sentenced to three months in prison, suspended for a year, and 100 hours unpaid work.
Cheryl Burr, Assistant Director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said: "This was a shameful attempt to put thousands of illegal cigarettes on the UK’s streets. They thought they could get away with this smuggling attempt and line their own pockets as a result but they were wrong.
"Trade in illicit tobacco deprives the UK of money which should be used to fund our vital public services and it undermines legitimate traders. The duty evaded on these goods was equivalent to the salaries of 11 new Northumbria Police officers for a year. Anyone with information about this type of fraud should report it to HMRC online, or contact our Fraud Hotline on 0800 788 887.”
HMRC said that Parry and Hyden flew into Newcastle in November 2017, but their six suitcases were delayed and arrived on a later flight. Border Force officers searched their cases when they arrived and found them filled with 81,600 illicit cigarettes.
Haggerton was also stopped at Newcastle Airport in March 2018 and was found carrying 41,800 cigarettes.
Halliman and Joyce were caught with more than 40,000 cigarettes each at London Heathrow in February 2018.
Investigations by HMRC revealed the group also smuggled a further 592,247 cigarettes into the country.
HMRC said that flight booking information and social media evidence showed the gang members, who had flown to the UK from Kuwait, were working together.
They all admitted excise fraud at Newcastle Crown Court in November before being sentenced last week.
Proceedings are underway to recover the unpaid duty.
Information about any type of tax fraud can be reported to HMRC online at https://www.gov.uk/report-an-unregistered-trader-or-business.