Three men have been jailed after they were caught with more than 1.5 million illegal cigarettes in a South Shields warehouse.
The bootleg cigarettes, disguised as road surfacing material, were worth £526,397 in unpaid duty.
Yiannakis Theodorou, 48, of Halford Close, Attleborough, Norfolk; Danut Nastasescu, 48, and Stanel Oprisan, 26, both of Romania; were found hiding inside the unit on Middlefields Industrial Estate when HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) officers swooped and uncovered the illegal haul.
Officers searched the premises on Throckley Way in March and discovered 24 pallets loaded with packages containing 1,508,300 non-UK duty paid cigarettes.
The cigarettes were hidden in wooden containers coated in bitumen, which is often used for road surfaces, and then wrapped in packaging.
The three were found hiding at the back of the unit and arrested at the scene.
Alison Chipperton, Assistant Director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said: "This was a shocking attempt to flood the streets with illicit cigarettes and con taxpayers out of money which should be used to fund our vital public services. The trio thought they could hide and wouldn’t get caught, but they were wrong.
"These men stole enough money to pay the salaries for 26 new police officers for a year. Anyone with information about tax fraud should report it to HMRC online or contact our Fraud Hotline on 0800 788 887."
Investigations revealed Theodorou arranged the import and distribution of the cigarettes. He was found hiding between lorries parked inside the unit when HMRC searched the premises. Nastasescu and Oprisan travelled from Romania to unpack the illegal goods.
The men admitted excise fraud during a hearing at Newcastle Crown Court.
Theodorou was sentenced to three years in prison, while Nastasescu and Oprisan were both jailed for 15.
Information about any type of tax fraud can be reported to HMRC online at https://www.gov.uk/report-an-unregistered-trader-or-business.