A gang who attempted to flood UK streets with millions of smuggled cigarettes and launder the proceeds by buying and selling high-value cars, have been jailed for more than 25 years.

Ian Pritchard, 51, Sean Dolan, 43, Paul Smith, 47, and Ian Hindle, 39, were behind smuggling more than 17 million non-UK duty paid cigarettes and 1.4 tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco into the UK from south-east Asia from January 2014. The duty and VAT evaded totalled £4,308,832.

The men, from across the North West and Northern Ireland, used a rented flat in Liverpool as their base to plan the 20-month smuggling scam, which was busted when HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) officers moved in to arrest them in late 2015.

The seizure of cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco took place at the Port of Felixstowe in September 2014, when two shipping containers were stopped by Border Force officials. The goods were described as furniture on paperwork to try and evade detection.

During a later search of Dolan’s home, 949,600 American Legend brand cigarettes were also found hidden in the garage.

The fraudsters tried to hide the cash from the illegal tobacco sales by buying high-value vehicles and selling them on. They set up and fronted a UK-based business, and hijacked the identity of a legitimate business, in order to launder the proceeds and avoid paying VAT.

The gang bought 102 vehicles totalling £1,138,029 – more than £500,000 of which was paid in cash. The money was then deposited into the businesses. One in particular, headed by Pritchard, received a further £308,000 in cash over a seven-month period in 2015.

A carrier bag containing £41,000 in used notes was found under a mat in Hindle’s car on his arrest. The cash was seized and forfeited.

Hindle, Pritchard and Smith were convicted after a trial at Liverpool Crown Court. Dolan admitted guilt.

The gang was sentenced to more than 25 years in total at the same court on 27 July. They received the following:

• Ian Pritchard was sentenced to 10 years in prison

• Ian Hindle was sentenced to five and-a-half years in prison

• Sean Dolan was sentenced to five years in prison

• Paul Smith was sentenced to five years in prison

HMRC has now begun proceedings to reclaim the stolen tax.

Antony Capon, assistant director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said: “This gang was aiming to undercut legitimate retailers with this large quantity of smuggled cigarettes and tobacco. They thought that by setting up a fake business and funnelling cash through it they would somehow stay under HMRC’s radar. They were wrong and it was foolish of them to believe they could get away with committing such a large-scale fraud.

“Disrupting criminal trade is at the heart of our strategy to clampdown on the illicit tobacco market. This is theft from the taxpayer, denying public services much needed money. We urge anyone with information about this, or any other tax evasion to contact HMRC online or our Fraud Hotline on 0800 788887.”