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Thursday , April 22 2021

Heist exposes Philippine dirty money secrets – FBI to assist Bangladesh with probe

DHAKA, March 20, (Agencies): The FBI has agreed to help Bangladesh investigate an audacious $81 million theft from the nation’s foreign reserves, authorities said Sunday, days after the finance minister accused central bank officials of complicity in the heist. A FBI official in Dhaka met with representatives from Bangladesh’s Criminal Investigation Department and offered to assist with the investigation into the spectacular cross-country theft. “Both the FBI and the CID have agreed to work together since it’s a transnational organised crime and transnational criminal networks are involved,” Md. Saiful Alam, deputy inspector general of CID, told AFP. There was no immediate comment from the FBI.

Hackers stole the money from the Bangladesh Bank’s account with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on Feb 5 and managed to transfer it electronically to accounts in the Philippines. The audacious cyber-theft has embarrassed the government, triggered outrage in the impoverished country and raised alarm over the security of the Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserves of over $27 billion.

The central bank governor, his two deputies and the country’s top banking bureaucrat lost their jobs following the theft and the government has been scrambling to contain the damage from the spiralling scandal. Police said Bangladeshi investigators were planning to travel to the Philippines, Sri Lanka and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as part of the transnational probe into the heist.

However, investigators say local hackers were likely involved in the theft. “We suspect some local people are involved in the crime. The names of local development projects were used in the payment advices sent to the Federal Reserve Bank,” Alam said. “This has raised our suspicion that there could be some local links.” In a damning interview published on Friday, the country’s Finance Minister A.M.A Muhith told the Bengalilanguage daily Prothom Alo that Bangladesh Bank officials were “100 percent” involved in the scandal. “Of course! One hundred percent they are (involved). This cannot be possible without complicity of the locals,” the newspaper, which has the highest circulation of any in Bangladesh, quoted Muhith as saying. Muhith said the New York bank requires hand prints and other biometric information from central bank officials to activate transactions, appearing to suggest the hackers could not have carried out the attack without inside help. A cyber crime expert has disappeared after talking to police and the media about an attempted $951 million cyber heist from Bangladesh’s central bank, his wife said on Sunday.

Kamrun Nahar Chowdhury said her husband Tanveer Hassan Zoha had been taken from a motorised rickshaw in the early hours of Thursday by people in plainclothes who blindfolded him and drove off with him in a vehicle. The heist at Bangladesh Bank led on Tuesday to the resignation of bank governor Atiur Rahman, after details emerged of $81 million of the bank’s money reaching casino operators in the Philippines.

It was one of the largest cyber robberies in history. In early February hackers tried in all to steal $951 million from the central bank’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which it uses for international settlements. Before his disappearance, Zoha went with members of a special police force to the central bank where they spent several hours. Afterwards, he told reporters that he knew three of the user IDs used for the heist. Kamrun Nahar said police had refused to investigate her husband’s disappearance and she appealed to the government for help to free him.

Police were unavailable for comment. “We don’t know why he was picked up,” she told Reuters. When mystery hackers launched a stunning raid on Bangladesh’s foreign reserves, a plot worthy of a John le Carre spy novel was sparked in the Philippines, exposing the Southeast Asian nation as a dirty money haven. The $81 million stolen from the Bangladesh central bank’s American accounts last month was immediately sent via electronic transfer to the Philippines’ RCBC bank, with the thieves deliberately targeting their laundering location.

The Philippines has some of the world’s strictest bank secrecy laws to protect account holders, while its casinos are exempt from rules altogether aimed at preventing money laundering. “The Philippines is very attractive (for dirty money) because our laws have gaping holes. It’s easy to launder money here,” Senator Sergio Osmena, who is pushing for stronger anti-money laundering laws, told AFP. Still, if the thieves were to get away with their audacious heist, the money had to be moved quickly through the banking system and into the casinos. And it did. Authorities took four days to order a recall of the money.

But by then it had vanished — leaving in its place a tale of death threats, bribes, shady business figures and a bank manager who could be the villain or a victim. “I did not do anything wrong. If this is a nightmare, I want to wake up now,” the manager of RCBC bank, Maia Deguito, told ABS-CBN television this week after authorities stopped her at Manila airport from trying to leave the country. “I live everyday in fear.”

With authorities in Bangladesh and elsewhere bamboozled over who masterminded the cyber-heist, Deguito’s role as manager of the bank that accepted and shifted the money has come under intense scrutiny. She has accused the bank’s president, Lorenzo Tan, of ordering her to move the money. He has fiercely denied the accusations. Philippine senators who launched an inquiry this week into the affair are yet to determine whether she was a scapegoat or not, but are convinced she was not the mastermind. “It’s a big operation. This could not have been done out of the Philippines alone,”

Senator Ralph Recto said. The Senate inquiry and another probe by the Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council have hit several major hurdles, including a security camera at the bank not working when the money was shifted. Accusations and counter-accusations between Deguito and RCBC management have further confused investigators. A final roadblock has emerged at the casinos, with the money apparently vanishing in mountains of gambling chips and mysterious middlemen.

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