A record Hk$1.5b of dirty cash In coffers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am


A record HK$1.5 billion seized from criminals was deposited in the coffers of the Hong Kong government in the first five months of this year.

The massive haul of dirty money is nine times the amount seized by law enforcers in the whole of last year.

It means that since 2007, the amount taken from criminals and given to the government has risen by more than 500 per cent.

The sum so far this year is the most paid to the government since the Joint Financial Intelligence Unit (JFIU), which spearheads the city's fight against money laundering, was set up in 1989.

The unit comprises police and customs and excise officers and also deals with terrorist financing. It operates under laws against drug trafficking and organised crime.

The figure this year was inflated by one unusually large seizure resulting from a 2009 illegal gambling racket.

The scam saw illicit money laundered through Hong Kong bank accounts by criminals in Taiwan and on the mainland.

The figures also show the number of suspicious transactions being reported by banks, accountancy firms and real estate agents is rising.

But they have prompted further calls for more of the money seized to be pumped back into the fight against money laundering rather than counted as general revenue by the government.

Simon Young Ngai-man, director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong, called on the government to make better use of the money it recovered. 'Where does the money go?' he asked. 'It disappears into general revenue, but it could go back into law enforcement. It's those types of initiatives that could help.'

Young, a Canadian barrister who has been based in Hong Kong since 2001, was shocked by the lack of discussion on civil forfeiture when he first arrived in the city.

In 2009, he edited a book which looked at financial intelligence units in Ireland, Canada, Australia, the UK, Macau and Taiwan.

He wanted to examine the 'practice of asset confiscation in Chinese societies where the rate of wealth accumulation (both legitimate and illegitimate sources) is unlike anywhere else in the world'.

He wrote a chapter that was critical of the JFIU because of its restricted powers. He said: 'It has a very limited role. Strictly speaking, it collects and disseminates intelligence.

'I think it can do a lot more but I'm not blaming the unit.

'In the last three years, they have stepped up their work and given it a priority in recent times.'

Young said the city needs tougher confiscation laws and suggested that anti-money-laundering policies in countries such as Australia were good examples that Hong Kong could follow.

He said casinos and property were still popular ways to launder money, but banks were also favoured targets. 'Going back a few years, it was the hot money coming from China and the property estate agents not looking at where the money was coming from.

'But a lot of crime proceeds still go through the traditional channels. Banks can ask questions and keep records to some extent, but if the client gives a plausible explanation, they won't go beyond that.

'It's a bit of a race and in the meantime, the money may have gone somewhere else and been covered up. It comes to Hong Kong and it doesn't necessarily stay here.'

Young recognises the limitations of the Joint Financial Intelligence Unit, which relies on people to detect and report suspicious transactions in financial and non-financial sectors.

He added: 'Regardless of all the steps that the Hong Kong government takes, criminal money will come through Hong Kong.

'It just comes with being a financial centre. It's the steps that you take to ensure people don't benefit from crime, with more deterrents.'

The number of 'suspicious transaction' reports made to the JFIU, which also works with ICAC and the Immigration Department, has risen steadily over the past few years.

A spokeswoman for the Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau, which the Security Bureau says is the 'overall co-ordinator' of Hong Kong's money laundering policy, refused to comment on the data because it was outside its 'purview'.

Key departments and bureaus involved with the unit, including the Customs and Excise Department, refused to comment on possible improvements or any trends.

The Security Bureau refused to provide a comment from the Commissioner for Narcotics.

Experts say money laundering accounts for between 2 per cent and 5 per cent of the global economy.

In the United States alone, it is estimated that US$275 billion is accumulated through crimes including money laundering.