Amid the COVID-19 pandemics, dozens of millions of people are locked down in their home office or must apply social distancing rules. Hence, their social activities are limited to social media and messenger services. The perfect environment for financial fraud is right now reaching new dimensions.
Acting cross-border is an essential part of the script for any scam, knowing that acting cross-border is still a big obstacle for law enforcement worldwide.
During the past months, based on documents provided by victims, we realized that more and more scammers involve Asian operations to rip off European people.
Recently 29 new European members have joined EFRI; all victims got ripped off from highly sophisticated investment fraud schemes based in the international financial centre of Hong Kong. The scammers realized that Hong Kong is an excellent place for scammers.
Hong Kong – a fraud epicentre
Lured by fancy brokerage websites, and allegedly highly experienced brokers presenting compelling investment opportunities, unsuspecting European retail investors deposit material amounts with Hong Kong-based Trading Companies for investments in promising Asian Technology Companies.
The role of Hong Kong Company builders in this kind of investment fraud
According to our investigations, Hong Kong company builders
- administer the fake promising Chinese “Technology Companies” (the investment opportunities) as well a
- set up and administer the fake “Trading Companies” supposed to handle the acquisition of the shares in the promising Hong Kong investment opportunities
Non-active shell companies are marketed as promising Chinese Technology Companies (investment opportunities)
Shell companies, registered years ago, get redressed as promising “Technology Companies” with upcoming IPOS or shares of these companies being on sale. Sophisticated websites and fake reviews in reputable online media pretend a successful Technology Company operational in Hong Kong.
Examples are as follow:
|Hong Kong CR#
|Date of register
|Data Control Technitic
|29th June 2007
|3D Printer Technology
|21st May 2013
|28th February 2017
|17th July 2014
|Green Farm Asia
|6th June 2014
All Trading Companies used to receive the funds for the investment from the European retail investors show the following characteristic.
- The majority of these Trading Companies are newly founded, with the registration process done by only a limited number of Hong Kong Company builders.
- More or less, all of them have their registered offices in the relevant Hong Kong Company builder’s offices.
- The registered managing directors and nominee shareholders are Mainland Chinese with no residency in Hong Kong.
- All these Trading Companies have no employees.
- The business purpose as registered in the commercial register of Hong Kong does not match with the apparent activities of these Trading Companies – exclusively acting as illegal payment service providers.
Most of the 55 Trading Companies used for luring investments were dissolved. Later on, all bank accounts got emptied. The scammers sent the victims’ money to offshore accounts.
Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre, the relative ease of company formation, and its geographic location expose it to misuse through scammers.
The role of the Hong Kong bankers in the scams is a shame.
Hong Kong is an active member of international AML/CFT organizations, having been a member of the Financial Action Task Force (“FATF“) since 1991 and a founding member of the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering (“APG”) since 1997.
Hong Kong is one of the largest international financial centres worldwide with a highly externally oriented economy and relative ease of company formation. Hong Kong’s authorities and banks are aware that Hong Kong is attractive for criminals seeking to hide or move funds.
More astonishingly is the fact that since July 2017, a considerable number of European fraud victims have been told to make deposits to Hong Kong shell companies (presented as legitimate Trading Companies) – with bank accounts held with some of the most prominent and most respected financial institutions worldwide.
In total, 29 victims – registered with EFRI – transferred close to 8 Mio EUR to 55 Hong Kong-registered Trading Companies with 50 different Hong Kong bank accounts and six bank accounts in other jurisdictions:
Hong Kong banks do not properly Know Your Customers Due Diligence and do not monitor ongoing transactions for suspicious transactions as required by the FATF KYC/CFT standards.
Alarming hints that the bankers even actively supported the scammers are as follows.
- Serial opening up of bank accounts for shell companies organized by Hong Kong Company Builders.
- Material wire transfer amounts (some > EUR 200.000) from European retail investors have not raised red flags within the banks.
- Some transfers made by the victims had insufficient bank account numbers; however, the receiving bank people did the transactions without any inquiries.
The total size of the scams in Hong Kong
The fraud experience has tremendous social impacts on the defrauded European investors. They have sent their hard and honestly earned funds to one of the supposedly best regulated and supervised financial markets worldwide.
New victims of these Asia investment fraud schemes are showing up daily and are raising the total number of losses. The actual number of victims must be tremendous, and the amounts transferred most probably reach three-digit million numbers. Fact-based estimations indicate that hundreds if not thousands of victims in Europe are impacted. The victims take action.
The victims have alerted the Hong Kong supervisory authorities and the compliance departments of the banks involved. Criminal complaints against the scammers and the banks involved have been filed in the home jurisdictions of the European victims and Hong Kong.
Still, it remains to be seen whether the ongoing investigations will result in any outcome, which provides support and hope for many victims here in Europe; in particular, it will be interesting to see whether the banks acknowledge their specific responsibility.
 The group calls its “Action against Investment Scam Asia”. It is an ever-growing group of aggrieved investors from all over Europe. The group has opened its website (Website: https://www.investment-scam-asia.com/en/) to warn the public about this fraud.
 The role of the “company builders in Hong Kong.”
Only a limited number of Hong Kong company builders were identified, which registered most shell companies. These company builders also act as company secretaries of these shell companies and even provide the official address in Hong Kong for these shell companies. Two names of these company builders stand out: BSIDA International Business (HK) Limited and Hong Kong Ten Yan Business Secretary Limited, only registered on 12th January 2018.