For bank heist hackers, the Philippines was a handy black hole

Mon Mar 21, 2016 5:34am EDT
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By John Chalmers and Karen Lema

MANILA (Reuters) - In February 2013, the Philippines was up against a deadline to amend its Anti-Money Laundering Act and get itself off the 'gray list' of a global watchdog, and lawmakers were bickering over whether to include casinos under the legislation.

With one day to go, a Congressional committee heard repeated pleas not to hamstring an industry that could rival other Asian gambling meccas by obliging casinos to report suspicious transactions. Finally, the senator chairing the meeting agreed "with a heavy heart" to exclude them, a transcript of the proceedings shows.

That same senator now heads a panel trying to fathom how $81 million hacked last month from the New York Federal Reserve account of Bangladesh's central bank wound up with two casinos and a junket operator in the Philippines - and then disappeared.

It is one of the biggest cyber heists in history, and since the money trail has gone cold in the Philippines, the perpetrators may never be identified.

The senator, Teofisto Guingona, told Reuters after a public hearing on the case last week that fierce lobbying by the gaming industry over the law had left the Philippines one of the world's softest targets for money launderers, putting the financial system at serious risk.

"It can wreak havoc on the economy," he said. "Any money coming in and out of the country will come under scrutiny. People might just say 'to hell with it, it's not worth doing business with the Philippines'."

The Philippines depends heavily on remittances from workers abroad, which account for about 10 percent of its GDP.

The country's central bank chief said last week financial markets had shown no signs of distress over the scandal, but added: "We have to recognize there is a risk that is associated with this."   Continued...

The Swift code bank logo is displayed on an iPhone 6s on top of Euro banknotes in this file illustration photo January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Files