A recruitment consultant who smuggled more than 20 million cigarettes from Dubai disguised as babies’ toys has been jailed for two-and-a-half years.

Mark Sadgrove, of Maybury Close in Loughton, was part of a gang which tried to evade £3.3 million in customs duty on the cigarettes which arrived in two container ships at the port of Felixstowe.

Officers from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) had monitored the ships as they set out from Dubai en route for Hong Kong.

In the meantime, Sadgrove stole legitimate VAT numbers from reputable toy manufacturers to clear the containers through customs when they arrived at Felixstowe disguised as 1,020 cartons of toys. They were taken to a warehouse in Upminster where they were seized in a raid by customs officers.

Sadgrove was arrested with two co-conspirators shortly afterwards as they were in the process of unloading boxes of cigarettes into a van.

A search of the van found what officers described as a smuggling kit, including sample packets, a glossy promotion brochure and newspaper articles about cigarette smuggling.

All seven gang members were arrested and charged with conspiracy to evade excise duty chargeable on the importation of cigarettes.

Sadgrove denied the charge but was convicted following a six week trial at Ipswich Crown Court.

Paul Barton, HMRC’s assistant director of criminal investigation, said: “If these criminals had not been stopped they would have flooded local markets with not only the 20 million illicit cigarettes we seized, but would have gone on to smuggle in many more.”

Sadgrove’s role in the operation won him a place on HMRC’s list of the country’s top 30 tax cheats for 2012.

Mr Barton said: “HMRC is determined to eradicate this form of criminality and raise awareness of the devastating effect on our communities, including legitimate retailers having to compete with black market goods.”