10-year high of HK$7.87 billion in dirty cash and assets seized in Hong Kong – but money laundering convictions down
- Figure is 150 times the amount taken from criminals last year as police and banks step up investigations into suspicious transactions
- Huge spike mainly due to one particular ongoing money laundering probe involving HK$7.3 billion worth of assets
Dirty cash and assets amounting to HK$7.87 billion (US$1 billion) were seized by Hong Kong authorities in the first 10 months of 2018, the Post has learned.
The 10-year high came amid a surge in reports of suspected money laundering and terrorist financing activity in the city.
Figures from Hong Kong’s anti-money-laundering squad show the amount was 150 times the HK$52 million that law enforcers took from criminals in the whole of last year. It was almost threefold the HK$2.72 billion in assets frozen under court orders over the past six years.
Government sources told the Post that the crimes behind the huge sum included drug trafficking, smuggling, commercial fraud and internet scams.
“Once these cases end with convictions, the money will go to the government treasury after deductions for legal costs,” one source said.
The dramatic upswing was partly the result of investigations into the rising number of reports in recent years involving financial transactions with suspected links to money laundering or terrorist financing.
The force said the “significant increase” was mainly due to one particular ongoing money laundering probe involving HK$7.3 billion worth of assets.
But a police spokesman said: “There is so far no evidence to suggest any of the assets are linked to terrorist financing activity in Hong Kong.”
The anti-money-laundering squad – the Joint Financial Intelligence Unit – is staffed by police and customs officers. It handled 92,115 suspicious financial transactions last year – a record since it was set up in 1989. The team received 64,850 such reports in the first 10 months of 2018, a large increase on the 23,282 in 2012.
“Manpower has been expanded from 48 officers in 2017 to the current 65 in place since August 2018,” the spokesman said.
The growth in suspicious transactions stems from a flood of reports lodged by banks after they boosted resources devoted to tracking suspect money flows. More than 93 per cent of these reports last year were lodged by the banking sector.
Some HK$275 million in dirty cash and assets was paid to the government in the first 10 months of this year, according to the squad.
But fewer people were caught and convicted of money laundering, police figures show. Convictions fell from 160 in 2012 to 90 last year. There were 76 people found guilty between January and October this year.
The squad is responsible for assessing all reports made in Hong Kong about suspicious transactions. Cases it believes deserve further probing are forwarded to investigators elsewhere in the police force or the Customs and Excise Department.
Dogs trained in Britain to help Hong Kong customs officials sniff out dirty cash being funnelled through the city
Last month officers from the force’s Anti-Deception Coordination Centre nabbed a local businessman and his female business partner after his bank account was found to have been used to collect and launder HK$620 million obtained in scams during the first seven months of this year. The officers took control of HK$33 million in the account.
The Post reported in August that thousands of Hong Kong bank accounts had been used by local and international fraudsters to collect and launder about HK$4 billion between July 2017 and July 2018. Many of the account holders were mainland Chinese residents believed to have been recruited by underground money exchanges across the border.
The anti-deception centre was set up in July last year and has since dealt with more than 1,500 requests to freeze billions of dollars taken in scams that took place both in Hong Kong and overseas. In this year’s biggest commercial email scam, the centre helped a Spanish company freeze HK$60 million after it was duped into transferring about HK$100 million to several bank accounts in Hong Kong in June and July.
Police said the force would continue to join overseas agencies in enforcing anti-money-laundering laws in Hong Kong.
“On the international front, the force spares no effort in fostering and enhancing our network in combating money laundering activities, through the exchange of financial intelligence, and, in appropriate cases, by conducting joint investigations with worldwide counterparts,” the spokesman said.
He added that police were arranging financial investigation training for all the city’s law enforcement agents, and were publicising the problem with financial institutions.
Money laundering carries a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment and a HK$5 million fine under Hong Kong’s Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance.