Seven current and former Hong Kong bankers were arrested in a series of raids on Tuesday as police moved against an international money-laundering syndicate alleged to have handled HK$6.3 billion (US$813 million) in criminal proceeds – the biggest such case in nearly a decade.
Superintendent Yip Wing-lam of the commercial crime bureau said the enterprise, which moved the funds through local bank accounts over the past four years, was the first known to involve Hong Kong bankers.
Officers also seized HK$7.8 million in cash at the home of one of the suspects, who lives in a public housing flat.
“Police have brought the suspected lawbreakers in the local financial system to justice with this operation,” Yip said at a Wednesday press conference.
Officers from the commercial crime bureau first began investigating the syndicate in 2017 while handling an email scam involving the London office of a Swiss company that was duped into transferring US$2 million into bank accounts in Hong Kong.
The investigation revealed the syndicate had sent 16 people – a combination of Belgians and mainland Chinese – to the city to open 14 business accounts at two banks using forged documents and fake Hong Kong identity cards.
The seven bankers were accused of using their knowledge of banking operations and customer vetting procedures to assist the gang in opening the accounts used for money laundering, according to Senior Inspector Chu Kin-wah.
He said the seven, who worked as customer service managers, were suspected of receiving thousands of Hong Kong dollars in return for helping open the bank accounts. Some had already left the banks involved before their arrests.
“Investigation revealed the 14 bank accounts laundered about HK$6.3 billion in suspected criminal proceeds between 2017 and 2020,” Chu said.
He said around HK$3.3 billion of the money was laundered via just one account between 2018 and 2019.
“The money was transferred into Hong Kong from all over the world including Italy, Vietnam and Germany,” Chu added.
A police source said some of the money was linked to online deception cases that had taken place abroad.
After identifying the suspects, police swooped into action on Tuesday, arresting the five men and two women, aged between 30 and 37.
They were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to launder money – an offence that carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail and a HK$5 million fine.
As of midday on Wednesday, the suspects were still being held for questioning and none had been charged.
According to the force, the investigation was continuing and police were liaising with overseas enforcement agencies, Interpol and mainland authorities.
The city’s largest ever money-laundering case – involving HK$13.1 billion – came to light with the 2012 arrest of a 22-year-old mainland man. He laundered the money through his bank accounts between August 2009 and April 2010, making 4,800 deposits over an eight-month period.
In January 2013, he was sentenced to 10½ years’ jail.