A gang of nine men who flooded Kent with millions of illegal cigarettes and sold them for £3 a pack in shops have been jailed for a total of 16 years and nine months.

The gang, led by Harem Kamishi, 33, of Tunbridge Wells, evaded £667,000 in duty and hid illicit cigarettes and tobacco in underground compartments that were opened with car key-style fobs.

They were caught after an investigation by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), which worked with Kent Police, Medway Trading Standards and Kent Trading Standards to seize 2.9 million cigarettes and 481 kilograms of tobacco between 2009 and 2017.

The gang supplied and distributed illegal cigarettes and tobacco to a network of convenience stores in Margate, Gravesend, Chatham, Ramsgate, Dartford, Gillingham and Maidstone.

Ben Moore, assistant director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said: “These men have undermined legitimate hard working shop owners who serve their communities and pay their taxes. They undercut their competitors, and have unashamedly contributed to the £1.8bn annual tax gap caused by the illegal trade in cigarettes and tobacco.

“We worked in partnership with Kent Police, Kent Trading Standards and the Crown Prosecution Service to uncover the extent of this scam and we are pleased the courts have recognised the seriousness of this offending.

“Tax fraud steals money from our public services that we all rely on, day in day out. Anyone with information about suspected tax fraud can report it to HMRC online or call our Fraud Hotline on 0800 788 887.”

Clive Phillips, complex investigations operations manager, Kent County Council Trading Standards, said: “A large number of our officers have been involved in the inspection of premises, seizure of large quantities of illicit tobacco, interviews of suspects and provision of evidence at Crown Court hearings.

“The sale of illicit tobacco significantly undermines legitimate businesses and funds organised crime. This result sends a clear messages to criminal gangs that we will continue to work with all of our enforcement partners in stamping out this crime. We congratulate HMRC on this fantastic result for the community of Kent.”

Kim Holden of the Crown Prosecution Service said: “The network used increasingly elaborate methods to hide the smuggled cigarettes and tobacco, knowing what they were doing was completely outside the law. They treated their criminal activity like a game of hide and seek, but this was a game they were always destined to lose.

“The corrupt shopkeepers were driven by deception, creating increasingly complicated devices to conceal their haul of untaxed cigarettes and tobacco. Even when there was a wealth of evidence against them, the network still tried to deny their criminality, lies which we were able to disprove throughout the trials.”

The illicit tobacco was found in shops, vehicles, lock up garages and houses. It was even hidden in under-the-counter compartments which could only be opened by activating a car key-style fob.

Confiscation proceedings are under way against Harem Kamishi, Dyar Jalal Hama, Mohamad Hassan Mohamad, Dani Adam and Shamal Mohammed Najib, who received prison sentences ranging from four year and three months to two years and three months. Four other men received a range of fines, community sentences and suspended jail sentences.