A gang that smuggled over 117 million illegal cigarettes into the UK and cheated the tax authorities over £ 36million has been caught in the EncroChat hack.
The Rochdale-based gang smuggled the illicit cigarettes into the country on a “massive scale”, hiding them in trucks.
They also sent millions of pounds of cash – from the sale of cigarettes – from the UK in the same way to Poland to a mysterious figure called “Big Boss”.
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Hazhar Mohammad-Pani, 31, and Hubert Smolarek, 41, were both jailed for more than seven years.
“Although short-lived, the offense in this case was large-scale and it was very sophisticated,” Judge Nicholas Dean QC told the pair at Manchester Crown Court.
“EncroChat phones, while not illegal, are only useful for criminals who operate at a very high level, as happened in the case of Mr. Smolarek and Mr. Mohammad-Pani. “
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The highly secure EncroChat network has been hacked by law enforcement and previously secret messages have been discovered by the police.
The gang brazenly continued their crimes as the country entered the first lockdown and spoke on EncroChat about the best way to avoid getting caught while people stayed at home.
In some of the posts, the gang referred to £ 10,000 wads of cash as ‘sandwiches’, which they wrapped before hiding in trucks and transporting them to Europe.
Trucks carrying cash were called sandwich taxis and the UK was nicknamed “The Wild Country” or “The Island”.
The racket made so much money that it took the gangs hours to count the money, and they wore face masks to protect themselves from the dust created by the process.
Messages recovered between March and June last year showed that 117.5 million unpaid cigarettes in the UK had been smuggled or attempted to be smuggled into the country.
About 14.5 million were seized by the authorities.
The total amount of tax evaded was around £ 36.5million, prosecutor James Caldwell said.
The messages showed that around £ 8million of the proceeds from the sale of cigarettes had been smuggled or attempted to be smuggled out of the country to Poland.
Authorities have arrested around £ 1.6million after the money was seized in Dover in May last year.
Units operated in Rochdale, Aintree, Haslingden and Loughborough, where cigarettes were unloaded from trucks.
The cigarettes were hidden in the trucks in bags or in hollowed-out plasterboard, or had false papers to disguise the load as frozen food.
Two of the gang’s “main organizers” were convicted on Tuesday.
Mohammad-Pani, of Entwistle Road, Rochdale, was jailed for seven and a half years.
His lawyer Nadeem Aullybocus said Mohammad-Pani, who had seen “poverty” before, had received an offer he “could not refuse for the sake of his family”.
“He was trying to make sure his children didn’t experience the same poverty,” Aullybocus said.
“He chose the wrong road, an illegal road.”
When he was arrested at his home, officers found £ 16,655 hidden under a baby changing mat and in a changing bag.
Smolarek, of Bury and Rochdale Old Road, Heywood, was jailed for seven years and four months. Officers found £ 13,000 at his home during his arrest.
Maciej Dzikowski, 49, from London, is due to be sentenced at a later date.
The three men pleaded guilty to fraudulent fraud and conspiracy to transfer criminal property.
After the hearing, Carmine Di Franco, Deputy Director of the Fraud Investigation Service of HMRC, said: “In the fight against serious organized crime, Operation Encrochat was the most important law enforcement activity. largest and most important ever in the UK. helped HMRC dismantle a large gang involved in smuggling and supplying illegal cigarettes.
“Organized crime harms communities and businesses and costs the UK millions of pounds which should be spent on vital public services.
“We are determined to cut the funds which are the cornerstone of serious crime in the UK.
“We encourage anyone with information about the illegal sale of tobacco to report it online or to call the Anti-Fraud Hotline on 0800 788 887.”