A HAMPSHIRE man who was part of a cigarette smuggling gang has been ordered to pay back nearly £18,000 in excise duty or face jail.

Thomas McCarthy was a DHL courier, based at Heathrow Airport, when along with two other colleagues he was caught trying to smuggle 700,000 after an investigation by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

The trio would request courier work to Eastern Europe where they bought cheap cigarettes. They would then smuggle them into the UK to sell on the black market - undercutting legitimate retailers.

Between 2007 and 2009 they took 139 flights, smuggling an average of 5,000 cigarettes on each trip. Their joint criminal enterprise saw them smuggled a total of 700,000 cigarettes, netting them around £50,000 in excise duty.

John Cooper, Assistant Director for Criminal Investigation HMRC, said: “This gang abused their positions of trust. They were paid for their courier work, along with expenses, and would also make a substantial profit from the sales of the cigarettes they smuggled and sold illegally in the UK.

“This result sends a clear message to those who engage in this sort of crime - not only will they end up with a criminal record but we will reclaim the proceeds of their criminal activity.”

The operation came to light after Malcolm Woodyer from Surrey was arrested on 17 October 2009 at Luton Airport for illegally smuggling 3,200 cigarettes into the UK when he arrived on a flight from Poland.

A search of his home address found an extra 5,500 smuggled cigarettes.

Investigations showed he had been stopped and warned twice when he tried to smuggled 22,000 cigarettes into the UK.

All three admitted being knowingly concerned in the fraudulent evasion of the duty chargeable thereon, contrary to S170 (2) Customs and Excise Management Act 1979.

McCarthy, 53, of Somerville Crescent, Yateley, Hampshire, was ordered to payback £17,912 within five months or face ten months in jail and handed 200 hours' unpaid community work.

Buss, 46, of Whitton Road, Hounslow, was ordered to payback £69,143 within 14 days or face 20 months in jail plus 200 hours' unpaid community work.

Woodyer, 83, of Ansell Road, Frimley, Camberley, Surrey, was ordered to payback £14,986 within 14 days and 200 hours' unpaid community work.