“The amount involved in the case was more than HK$6 billion, the largest-ever money-laundering case detected by customs,” she said.
According to the department, the syndicate offered monetary rewards to recruit several people into setting up 11 shell companies and opening 57 business and personal accounts that were used to collect and launder dirty money.
Describing the group as “sophisticated’ with a clear division of work, Superintendent Ben Yeung Yuk-man, from the same bureau, said the syndicate had laundered HK$6 billion through the bank accounts in more than 7,600 transactions between January 2020 and December 2022.
He said most of the illegal funds were transferred into the accounts controlled by the syndicate from more than 2,000 bank accounts. The money was then transferred to another 800 accounts.
The biggest amount in a single transaction was HK$31 million, according to the department. Most of the nine suspects, aged 39 to 68, were unemployed.
“Investigation showed that the backgrounds and the financial status of the syndicate members were highly incommensurate with the large-value transactions in their bank accounts,” she said.
Part of the illicit money was transferred into a money exchange store in Hung Hom from mainland China before members of the syndicate went to the shop to collect the cash and take it to the group’s flat.
“The money was then divided into smaller portions and deposited into their controlled accounts over the bank counter or through automated teller machines,” Yeung said, adding that this was to avoid raising suspicions from bank employees and make it more difficult for law enforcement to track down the source of the funds.
The Post was told that the syndicate’s members went to the money exchange to collect the cash several times a week.
After a months-long investigation to gather evidence, customs swooped into action and raided 19 locations on January 5.
Officers rushed in when two male members of the syndicate carrying HK$3 million in a bag collected from the money exchange entered the Hung Hom flat. Customs arrested the pair and four women, including the alleged ringleader. Three other suspects were arrested in Sha Tin and North Point.
The nine suspects included the sole proprietors of the shell companies and holders of the bank accounts that were used to launder the illicit money.
The three men and six women were detained on suspicion of money laundering – an offence punishable by up to 14 years in jail.
Li said it was the first time they had discovered a syndicate using a rented residential flat of a large private housing estate as its operation centre for laundering money.
“The high security of the private housing estate greatly increased customs’ enforcement difficulties,” she said.
All suspects have been released on bail, pending further investigation.
Customs officers are still investigating the origins of the money involved, the final destinations of the illegal funds and the types of activities that had generated the illicit cash.
Officials said further arrests were possible.
The latest funds involved surpassed the HK$3.5 billion that customs had uncovered in a case last October.
In that find, customs arrested two suspects after they withdrew 8.4 tonnes of precious metal from a security firm’s vault, with the stash believed to have been bought with criminal proceeds and smuggled into the city.
It was one of nine significant money-laundering cases cracked last year, amounting to HK$5.2 billion in suspected criminal assets. There were 12 cases totalling HK$4.4 billion in 2021 and nine amounting to HK$4.6 billion in 2020.
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. Between August 2009 and April 2010, the man laundered the money through 4,800 deposits to his various bank accounts. He was sentenced to 10½ years in jail in January 2013.