Three men from the West Midlands have been jailed for evading an estimated £2.4m in duty and taxes, by attempting to smuggle more than ten million illicit cigarettes, many described as “desserts”, into the UK.

Steven Zindani, 59, and Gerard Smythe, 43, were arrested by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) after officers raided an industrial unit in June 2012 in Tyseley, Birmingham. Zindani was found offloading cigarettes from the back of a lorry while Smythe loaded them into a van. Officers seized nearly six million counterfeit and non-UK duty paid cigarettes, which were packaged in boxes labelled as desserts.

A few days earlier, HMRC seized more than 4,500,000 illicit cigarettes when they searched an unoccupied industrial unit in Redditch. Evidence found revealed Zindani and Smythe had been working together to arrange delivery and distribution of the illicit cigarettes. Raymond Preece, 60, was arrested after evidence linked him to the illegal activity.

Smythe and Preece pleaded guilty to charges of evading excise duty. Zindani denied the charges but was found guilty after a trial at Birmingham Crown Court in January. Zindani was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Smythe was sentenced to two years and five months and Preece was sentenced to two years.

Confiscation proceedings to recover the proceeds of crime will follow.

Richard Wentel, assistant director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said: “Counterfeit cigarettes are most likely made in back-street or underground factories across the world, and their sale is unregulated. With expertly crafted packaging it can be difficult to spot counterfeit tobacco products, but anyone offered cigarettes at ‘bargain’ prices should be wary.

“By evading the excise duty these smugglers were stealing money that should have been funding vital public services. We are asking local people and businesses with information about illegally imported goods or tax evasion and fraud to work with us to end this illegal trade by contacting the Customs Hotline on 0800 595000.”