In this photo taken on March 17, 2016 John Gomes (standing L), Bangladesh Ambassador to the Philippines, talks to Lorenzo Tan (standing R), president of Rizal Commercial Banking Corp (RCBC) at a senate hearing in Manila.
When mystery hackers launched a stunning raid on Bangladesh’s foreign reserves, a plot worthy of a John le Carre spy novel began in the Philippines exposing the Southeast Asian nation as a dirty money haven. / AFP / TED ALJIBE / TO GO WITH AFP STORY: Philippines-Bangladesh-bank-hacking-theft-casino, FOCUS by Karl MALAKUNAS
By Raju Gopalakrishnan
More than three months have passed since $81 million was stolen in a brazen cyber-heist from Bangladesh’s central bank and sent to Manila – yet authorities in the Philippines appear no closer to nabbing those who laundered most of the money through a bank and casinos here.
Nobody has been arrested, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) – the nation’s equivalent of the FBI – has not been allowed to get fully involved in the probe, and a Philippines Senate investigation petered out last week.
Several official and private investigators said they had hoped to make headway by following the money trail in the Philippines, but they told Reuters it has gone cold. They said the perpetrators probably knew the Philippines well and likely chose it because of the weakness of its money laundering laws.
The cyber-heist, one of the biggest-ever in the world, shouldn’t be seen as just the hacking of a bank, said Augustus “Ace” Esmeralda, a Manila-based private investigator.
“It’s more of somebody stealing the money employing a hacker, and someone who knows banks, the anti-money laundering system, the casinos … It’s the modern-day Ocean’s 11,” he said, referring to the Hollywood movie about a crime syndicate robbing Las Vegas casinos.
“I call it Manila 12,” added Esmeralda, who says he is following the case on behalf of two international bank clients.
One of the key reasons is that casinos are not covered under the Philippines’ anti-money laundering law, which means they are not obliged to report suspicious transactions or the players involved.
The Philippines Congress decided in 2013 to keep casinos off the list of institutions covered under the law to allow the country’s gaming industry to expand.
Also hindering investigators are antiquated bank secrecy laws that are among the strictest in the world. They stipulate that almost all deposits and foreign currency details are confidential.
The unidentified hackers infiltrated the computers at Bangladesh Bank in early February and tried to make 35 transfers of money, worth a total $951 million, from its account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. All but one of the attempted transfers involved were to the Rizal Commercial Banking Corp (RCBC) in the Philippines. Most were blocked, but $81 million went to accounts at a single branch in Manila.
The Senate inquiry heard from those who handled the money that most of it then went to casinos and casino agents in the Philippines, including junket operators, through a remittance agency.
Vast sums are gambled in Manila’s high-end casinos each day. At the Solaire Resort and Casino, a Reuters team saw pink chips for one million Hong Kong dollars (about $130,000) at the baccarat tables of the VIP rooms.
Nearly half the high-end gamblers there are ethnic Chinese, from mainland China or other parts of the region.
Solaire, operated by Bloomberry Resorts Corp, has said about $29 million of the funds from the heist came to the casino and most was transferred to the accounts of two junket operators.
“You go into a casino with one million bucks,” said Senator Serge Osmena, a member of the committee investigating the case. “You bet 10,000, probably lose it, and you hand over 990,000 to your friend and he goes out and cashes it.”
The money then is untraceable, he said.
Immediately after the heist it became clear that the money came to the Philippines. An NBI agent told Reuters that a team was on standby to make an arrest during Easter week at the end of March but was ordered to stand down with no reason given.