'Free Wi-Fi gang'
sentenced for ?10m smuggling tax fraud
A gang of 5 men, who met at roadside
cafes and used free public Wi-Fi to try and hide their ?10 million cigarette
smuggling ring, have been jailed for 16? years.
The men, from across the North West and Yorkshire attempted to import 3
large freight consignments of illegal cigarettes from Europe and China,
describing them as mattresses and automotive parts on Customs paperwork to try
to evade detection.
HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), working with Border Force, investigated the gang,
tracking their illegal activities, suspicious travel abroad and meetings in
service stations, roadside cafes and pubs.
Ringleader Raymond Hughes, 57, of Aughton, Lancashire, held regular 'business
meetings' in a roadside cafe and other locations that offered free Wi-Fi in
a bid to avoid being caught.
HMRC even found a text message between the fraudsters claiming "nothing can
be traced" because they used public Wi-Fi to communicate and track their
illegal imports. The gang used the internet to create fake businesses, aliases and contact
shipping companies to give the impression of trading in other goods. Despite
using free Wi-Fi and disposable mobile phones, HMRC traced many of the fake
emails and false identities to the men's home IP addresses and personal mobiles.
Tony Capon, Assistant Director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said:-
"Hughes lived in an expensive house, drove a Porsche Cayenne and travelled the
world, but he never declared any legitimate income or business trading to HMRC.
He operated a criminal network to smuggle, transport, store and sell illegal
cigarettes and tobacco, purely to evade tax. This was a serious attempt on an
industrial scale to steal millions of pounds from the public purse and undermine
local businesses.In our work to create a level playing field for all businesses and taxpayers, we
urge anyone with information about the trade in smuggled or counterfeit tobacco
to contact our 24-hour Hotline on 0800 59 5000. If you're ever offered cheap or
dodgy looking cigarettes or tobacco, call us; don't let the crooks get away with
this type of fraud."
Hughes was directly linked to the container loads of illegal cigarettes seized
at UK border points and inland. He travelled extensively abroad to source the
illegal cigarettes from criminal suppliers.
He claimed to be the boss of Ray Sport Ventures, a company based in Singapore
that imported teddy bears, razorblades and computer parts from China. HMRC
investigators found Hughes had not declared any income for several years despite
an affluent lifestyle and regular worldwide travel.
The other jailed gang members were:-
Marc Feldman, of Leeds, who liaised with shipping agents over deliveries and
payments. He travelled to Hartshead Moor Services on the M62 for a gang meeting
and had previously been convicted of large scale Excise Duty evasion, involving
1.5 million cigarettes in 2010.
Michael McNally and John Wignal, both of Liverpool, were involved in
distributing the cigarettes once they cleared UK Customs controls. The pair met
other gang members on several occasions including at The Greyhound public house
just off the A580 near Leigh, Lancashire, and were overheard discussing the
Stephen Sheard, of Crewe, acted as a shipping agent and a go between with
haulage companies and storage facilities during the Customs clearance for 2 of
the consignments containing 18 million smuggled cigarettes from Singapore. Using
his company More4U, he sent fake business emails to clearing agents that
described the cigarettes as automotive parts destined for Liverpool on behalf of
a company in Oxford. HMRC seized fake paperwork from his house and traced
extensive emails, phone calls and text messages between Sheard and other gang
A 6th man, Adrian Davidson, of Leeds, was spared jailed after he admitted his
part in the smuggling ring. He used an alias at a bank in Yeadon to transfer
money to pay to shipping agents for the smuggled containers. HMRC found ?17,000
in cash hidden under his floorboards along with paperwork for visas and travel
abroad for Hughes and others. Mobile phone evidence also connected him to
The amount of Excise Duty evaded in this case is estimated at ?10,199,650. HMRC
have started confiscation proceedings to recover the stolen tax from gang
members under Proceed of Crime legislation.