Hong Kong crime family arrested in $530m money-laundering investigation

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Five members of a Hong Kong family accused of laundering more than HK$3 billion (S$530 million) through 100 personal bank accounts have been arrested, along with the owner of a money exchange business, a senior customs official said on Monday.

According to investigators, the family, which consists of the parents, two sons, and a daughter, had funnelled the cash through the different accounts since 2018.

Officers said the family had a total monthly income of around HK$70,000, but had HK$30 million in two bank accounts, and owned two properties worth another HK$15 million.

“The assets held by this family are not commensurate with their profiles and backgrounds,” said Senior Superintendent Mark Woo Wai Kwan, who leads the Syndicate Crimes Investigation Bureau.

“We suspect this family has a hidden income which may be the crime proceeds from assisting money laundering.”

The case is the Customs and Excise Department’s biggest involving money laundering in five years, and Woo said the funds had come from unknown sources or shell companies.

Customs officials Grace Tang Wai Ngan (left) group head of financial investigations, and Mark Woo, head of the Syndicate Crimes Investigation Bureau, discuss the case at a press conference. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

“There were more than 6,000 suspicious financial transactions, involving more than HK$3 billion. The biggest single transaction was HK$22 million,” he said.

Woo said they were still looking into the origins of the money and the types of illegal activities it involved, but a source said the investigation indicated “some of the third party individuals or owners of the shell companies involved were from mainland China”.

Officers first began investigating the family’s eldest son early this year after a tip-off from a bank.

According to officials, the parents, aged 58 and 62, are unemployed, while the eldest son, 34, is a technician, and their second son, 30, works as a manager at the money exchange company involved in the case. The couple’s youngest daughter, aged 25, is a customer service officer.

Woo said he believed the family helped other syndicates to launder the proceeds of crime in return for cash rewards.

The family’s assets have been frozen, while the 60-year-old businessman was arrested because his company had been involved with suspicious financial transactions totalling HK$170 million.

But according to Woo, the company only reported about HK$30 million in transactions this year to customs.

“We suspect the company used some bank accounts in money laundering activities, and the accounts involved were not reported in its business transactions,” he said.

Woo said the money exchange company’s licence had been suspended following the owner’s arrest.

A law enforcement source said the biggest money-laundering case was recorded in 2015, and involved HK$6.5 billion and the smuggling of precious metals.

In 2016, a money changer was involved in a different case over a total of HK$450 million.

Group Head (Financial Investigation Group) Grace Tang.  PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Superintendent Grace Tang Wai Ngan, head of the financial investigation group, said the family were thought to have laundered the cash through layers of money transfers, making it difficult to investigate the original owners and final recipients of the funds.

A law enforcement source said the money was usually moved out of the bank accounts held by the family within one or two days.

During the operation, code name “Shadow Hunter”, officers seized a large quantity of documents including bank statements along with computers.

All six suspects, four men and two women, were released on bail after being detained on Thursday.

In Hong Kong, money laundering carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison, and a HK$5 million fine.

The Joint Financial Intelligence Unit, comprising police and customs officers, handled 51,588 reports of suspicious financial activity in 2019, down 30 per cent compared with 73,889 in 2018.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.