April 28, 2016 / 12:28 PM / a year ago

Philippine anti-money laundering body says remittance firm a 'cleaning house' in heist

Commuters pass by the front of the Bangladesh central bank building in Dhaka March 8, 2016. REUTERS/Ashikur Rahman/File Photo

MANILA (Reuters) - A Philippine anti-money laundering body has lodged a complaint against owners of a remittance firm it called a “cleaning house” to hide the trail of $81 million looted from a Bangladesh bank, in one of the biggest cyber heists in history.

Philrem Service Corporation muddied the process and washed the stolen funds via a web of transfers and currency conversions around Philippine bank accounts, before moving it into Manila casinos and junket operators, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) said in the filing dated Wednesday.

Philrem has denied wrongdoing.

Unidentified hackers infiltrated the computers at Bangladesh Bank, the central bank, in early February and tried to transfer some $951 million from its account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

All but one of the 35 attempted transfers were to the Rizal Commercial Banking Corp in the Philippines. Most were blocked, but $81 million went to four fictitious accounts at one RCBC branch in Manila.

Most of the stolen money was consolidated into one account and quickly transferred to Philrem, which hand-delivered and remitted the funds to casinos and gambling agents in Manila,

“Philrem acting as a remittance agent co-mingled the funds and acted as a ‘cleaning house’,” AMLC said in its 17-page complaint filed with the Department of Justice.

AMLC said the services of Philrem were unnecessary and its role was to “conceal the money trail”.

Howard Calleja, a lawyer for Philrem, declined to comment because he said he had yet to see the complaint.

In a March 17 statement, Philrem said it was following instructions from the “branch manager of the bank in question”, the same bank that “assured us that these transactions were valid and there were no irregularities”.

“Given the assertion, coupled with our company’s respect and long-standing relationship with the bank in question, we had been assured of the validity of the transactions. Therefore, we carried on with the transaction following due process,” Philrem said in the statement.

The Philippine Senate, which has launched an investigation into how the stolen money ended up with the casinos and gambling operators, will resume its probe on May 12.

The inquiry has led to the recovery of close to $10 million from a Chinese casino boss and junket operator called Kim Wong, who received almost $35 million.

Wong told the hearing that $17 million of the $81 million stolen money was with Philrem, a claim the owners of the remittance firm deny.

Progress in the Senate investigation has been hamstrung by strict banking secrecy laws and anti-money laundering legislation that does not cover casinos and cannot compel them to disclose information.

Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Nick Macfie

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