Suspect, 39, was allegedly a core member of a local money-laundering syndicate and had set up 13 bank accounts under two shell companies. Largest single transaction amounted to HK$9.4 million, according to Inspector Michael Ng.
Hong Kong customs officers have arrested a cosmetics saleswoman on suspicion of laundering nearly HK$900 million (US$115 million) in alleged crime proceeds through 13 bank accounts using two shell companies.
The 39-year-old woman was detained in Tsuen Wan on Tuesday after officers from customs’ financial investigation bureau raided her flat.
Inspector Michael Ng Sze-chai of the bureau said the suspect was allegedly a core member of a local money-laundering syndicate that had processed HK$896 million in illegal funds through the 13 accounts between May 2021 and January this year.
An investigation revealed that the woman had set up two shell companies on three days in January 2021, according to the Customs and Excise Department.
“The two companies claimed that they were involved in the import and export business and the trading of cargo such as electronic products, but the investigation found they had no actual business,” Ng said.
He added that the woman, who worked as a cosmetics saleswoman and earned about HK$10,000 a month, had allegedly set up the 13 bank accounts used to launder the funds over a 21-month period.
“The suspected crime proceeds [in local and US dollars] came from about 600 bank accounts through about 1,800 transactions,” he said, adding that most of the accounts were set up in Hong Kong.
“All of the illegal funds were then transferred out of the 13 bank accounts in hundreds of transactions and moved to another 100 bank accounts.”
The largest single transaction amounted to HK$9.4 million, according to the inspector.
A source familiar with the case said that most of the 700-plus accounts involved in the money-laundering case belonged to shell companies that were set up by travellers from mainland China and other places.
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Customs officers began investigating the syndicate about three months ago after suspicious transactions were detected in one of the business accounts belonging to the suspect.
After gathering evidence, officers from the financial investigation bureau, which was set up on August 1, arrested the woman on Tuesday.
She was detained on suspicion of money laundering – an offence punishable by up to 14 years in jail and a HK$5 million fine. As of Tuesday evening, she was still being held for questioning.
Ng said customs was investigating the origin of the illegal funds, how the cash was generated and its final destination.
Before the bureau was officially set up this month, the financial investigation division under the syndicate crimes investigation bureau was responsible for investigating money-laundering activities. The new bureau, led by Senior Superintendent Suzette Ip Tung-ching, has more than 90 officers.
So far this year, customs officers have intercepted six other money-laundering cases involving HK$11 billion in suspected crime proceeds and arrested a total of 46 people.
In June, officers smashed a money-laundering syndicate that had allegedly smuggled US$91 million in suspected crime proceeds into the city from Turkey using air passengers. Twenty-three local men were arrested in connection with the case.
In May, they arrested a jobless public housing tenant accused of running a syndicate that had laundered HK$3.5 billion in illegal proceeds. He was among eight people detained in the operation.
The city’s largest money-laundering case – involving HK$13.1 billion – came to light in 2012 when police arrested a 22-year-old man from the mainland. The amount was the highest recorded in two decades for a money-laundering case involving bulk cash smuggling operations using air couriers.
In the first seven months of this year, the Joint Financial Intelligence Unit, comprising police and customs officers, handled 48,026 reports of suspicious financial activity. Figures showed an increase in such cases from 51,588 in 2019 to 68,538 in 2022.
In Hong Kong, banks, securities and insurance firms, legal and accounting professionals, dealers in precious metals and stones, money service operators, money lenders and property agents are required to report suspicious transactions.
August 8, 2023 Published by The South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd.