A gang of five 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-and-a-half years.

The men, from across the North West and Yorkshire attempted to import three 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 deliveries.

• Stephen Sheard, of Crewe, acted as a shipping agent and a go-between with haulage companies and storage facilities during the Customs clearance for two 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 members.

A sixth 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 Feldman.

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.