The case is said to be the first to involve bulk cash smuggling and the use of cross-border couriers. Investigators suspect part of the cash was laundered through Macau casinos.
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|Cash seized in an operation that broke up a money-laundering ring engaged in smuggling criminal proceeds across the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. Photo: Handout|
Hong Kong customs officers have broken up a money-laundering ring accused of smuggling nearly HK$170 million (US$21.8 million) in criminal proceeds out of the city over three months via the world’s longest sea crossing, arresting five people in the first crackdown of its kind.
Couriers were hired to take the money over the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and investigators suspect that part of the cash was laundered through Macau casinos, the Post has learned.
Officers from the Customs and Excise Department seized HK$20.3 million in cash along with money transfer recipients and mobile phones during a law enforcement operation that ran between Thursday last week and Monday. They also froze HK$580,000 in bank accounts belonging to some of the suspects.
|The suspects are accused of using the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge to get cash out of the city. Photo: Winson Wong|
“It is the first time Hong Kong customs has broken up a money-laundering racket that was involved in bulk cash-smuggling operations and the use of cross-border drivers,” Senior Superintendent Mark Woo Wai-kwan, of customs’ syndicate crimes investigation bureau, said on Wednesday.
Woo said officers had sought help from their counterparts in Macau and Zhuhai in an effort to trace the “dirty” money and locate its recipients at the other end of the criminal chain. He said investigations were continuing and further arrests were possible.
Customs officers on Thursday last week arrested two drivers and seized HK$20 million after intercepting their vehicles – a seven-seater van and a tow truck – on the Hong Kong side of the mega bridge.
The arrests were made at about 7pm after a black recycling bag, packed with HK$20 million in HK$500 and HK$1,000 notes, was moved from the car to the truck.
The two men, aged 40 and 43, were among three suspected couriers accused of smuggling HK$166 million in 17 cash-smuggling operations since May, Woo said, adding the ill-gotten proceeds were taken to either Macau or Zhuhai, a neighbouring city in Guangdong province.
He said the biggest sum involved in a single delivery was HK$27 million.
|A van and a tow truck seized on Thursday during the cash-smuggling crackdown. Photo: Handout|
Last Friday, customs officers raided the Kwun Tong shop of a money exchange firm, picking up its director and a staff member, both men aged 41. Officers seized about HK$300,000 from the shop.
The third suspected cash courier, 43, was detained on Monday when he turned up for an interview with officers at customs headquarters in North Point.
The five men, aged between 40 and 44, were arrested for money laundering – an offence that carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail.
Woo said he believed the five suspects were the members of a money-laundering syndicate that had been operating since May.
“We are still investigating the original source of the illegal proceeds,” he said.