An online ‘trader’ caught with nearly 200,000 counterfeit cigarettes in his van on the M6 tried to claim his illegal haul was washing-up liquid.
But police noticed Robert Birtles had two open cartons, containing packs of Mayfairs, on the front seat of his cab, Bolton Crown Court was told.
And when customs investigators checked Birtles’ mobile phone they discovered a string of text messages from customers, asking about his “cheap fags”, the court heard.
Birtles, 60, of Falkirk Drive, Wigan, admitted to fraudulently evading £56,138 in duty and was jailed for 12 months by Judge Timothy Stead.
Passing sentence, Judge Stead said: “It is wrong that in straitening times you have helped yourself to a free ride running a business at taxpayers’ expense.”
Alison Heyworth, prosecuting on behalf of HM Revenues and Customs, said Birtles’ van was pulled over on the M6 by Merseyside Police officers on March 29.
He was asked what was in the back of the van and he replied: “Washing up liquid”.
But when officers opened the van’s back doors, they discovered 20 brown boxes, filled with cartons of Mayfair cigarettes, none of which had UK tax stamps, she said.
The court heard it was eventually calculated there were 199,780 cigarettes stashed in the vehicle.
Another search of the front compartment uncovered two opened boxes, which the prosecution alleged showed Birtles was well aware of the nature of his cargo.
Miss Heyworth said when he was interviewed about the cigarettes later, he insisted he had been kept in the dark about the consignment.
She added: “He said he had been asked to pick up a delivery from the Liverpool area and take it back.”
Birtles refused to name the third party who had supposedly asked him to carry out the trip, the court heard.
Miss Heyworth said when the defendant’s mobile phone was seized there were messages stored on it including one saying “Bob, can you get me some cheap fags?”
One of his replies said: “I am doing a fags run to Liverpool and back and I can’t take calls while I’m working.”
He also advertised his ‘business’ via social media.
Later Sandra Smith, HMRC’s fraud investigation assistant director, said: “We are determined to disrupt this type of criminal trade as it is not fair to honest businesses.”