Laundering crackdown to reveal depositors

FINANCIAL institutions are to be forced to find the true beneficial owner of deposits under new anti-money laundering rules.

Guidelines set by the Financial Action Taskforce, an independent international body to which the Government belongs, are to be confirmed soon and are expected to ensure banks, insurance companies and money-market brokers know the real identity of accountowners.

Representatives from both the Hong Kong Association of Banks and the Hongkong Bank could not say last night that they could guarantee the identification the actual benefactors of all company accounts, but would be keen to discuss further regulations.

Banks now operate under six-month-old regulations issued by the Monetary Authority which stress the need to be sure of the details of a trustee.

The Banking Ordinance regulations state third party accounts are frequently used to ''wash'' drug funds.

Hong Kong, which licences more than 170 banks alone and is a centre for company registration, is understood to be a key player in the taskforce policy.

The new international guidelines appear to be stiffer than those enforced by the Monetary Authority and are designed to make it easier for drug investigators to trace the increasingly-international money trails of drug deals.

Banks will be told to avoid accounts lodged in only the name of a company while requesting and searching for information revealing those who would ultimately benefit.

This information should be kept on record, allowing authorities to obtain it through search warrants if need be.

The Commissioner for Narcotics, Alasdair Sinclair, confirmed on his return from a taskforce meeting in Paris he was expecting agreement on the guidelines soon, but said it was too early to say exactly how they would be implemented.

''We are seeking to target the money launderer, not legitimate business and so whatever happens will be done with this in mind,'' Mr Sinclair said.

''If any extra information will be required as a result of the guidelines, then it would still be confidential and any authority which wanted it would still need a proper search warrant.

''The whole idea is to make the movement of illicitly-gained funds easier to trace.'' Erika Hui Lam Yiu-ming, principal assistant secretary of the Financial Services Branch, warned that Hong Kong would take its responsibilities as a taskforce member seriously.

''We don't want to be seen by other people in the world largely to have prospered by turning a blind-eye to illicit activities,'' Ms Hui said.

''There is a lot more to Hong Kong's success than that and we have always tried to be a good corporate operator.'' All financial institutions are bound by the Drug Trafficking (Recovery of Proceeds) Ordinance to report all suspicious transactions, a move which has seen more than $340 million in drug proceeds frozen and confiscated since its inception in 1989.

The Secretary of the Association of Banks, Phillip Martin, said he was unable to guarantee that Hong Kong institutions could name beneficial account owners.

However, he said, given practices and laws, they would be ''well-placed'' to handle what the taskforce proposed.

Hongkong Bank spokesman Bob Sherbin said his bank had a rigid system of identity checks and searches of company records.

''We like to know who we do business with and we devote considerable time to determining exactly who is behind our accounts.'' ''It's a very difficult and sensitive area and we can't be 100 per cent sure, but we try our best. There might well be a limit to what we can do.''