Two smugglers who plotted to flood the North East with a shipment of four million illicit cigarettes have been jailed after an HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) investigation revealed their scam.

Brian Storey, 28, of Ryhope, was stopped by Border Force officers at the Port of Dover after arriving on a ferry from France in July 2013. Inside his HGV, they discovered more than four million cigarettes worth £919,000 in unpaid duty – hidden among pallets of toilet roll.

The find triggered an investigation by HMRC that revealed Storey’s accomplice, 38-year-old Richard Watt, of Sunderland, had obtained a credit card under a false name that he used to make Storey’s travel arrangements.

During interview, Storey said he believed the HGV only contained toilet roll and dried food, and that he didn’t know the identity of the man who had made his travel arrangements. Analysis of his unregistered pay-as-you-go mobile phone revealed calls with an unknown contact regarding the tobacco shipment.

Attention then turned to the ferry booking, which had been made using a pre-paid credit card supposedly belonging to a ‘Paul Kaye’. But enquiries with the card issuer established that a bank statement and driving licence used in the application process were counterfeit. Paul Kaye didn’t exist.

Richard Watt was arrested in October 2013 after the address used on the Paul Kaye credit card application was found to be his own. During interview, he denied any knowledge of the cigarettes seized from Storey’s HGV and said he hadn’t created the Paul Kaye alias.

Both were charged with the fraudulent evasion of excise duty and pleaded guilty to the charges at Maidstone Crown Court in February and June 2015. Watt was sentenced to three years in prison, Storey to two years, by His Honour Judge Norton at Canterbury Crown Court on Friday 18 September.

Alan Tully, assistant director, fraud investigation service, HMRC, said: “This was a calculated and audacious bid to profit from the sale of illicit tobacco. But conspiring to sneak four million illegal cigarettes through Dover proved to be Storey and Watt’s undoing – it was a greedy gamble that has cost them their liberty.

“Disrupting criminal trade is at the heart of our strategy to clamp down on the illicit tobacco market, which costs the UK around £2.1bn a year. This is theft from the taxpayer and undermines legitimate traders.”