Melbourne man charged for helping launder tens of millions from cybercrime victims

The AFP has charged a Chinese national for allegedly using an Australian-based crime syndicate to help launder $100 million stolen from victims who invested in a global investment scam.

The Melbourne man, 37, is the seventh person charged under Operation Wickham, a joint operation between the AFP and the United States Secret Service (USSS).

The AFP executed a search warrant at the man’s Sydney and Melbourne homes on Wednesday, 25 October, 2023, and charged him with:

  • One count of recklessly engaging, on two or more occasions, in conduct related to the proceeds of general crime, the value of which being greater than $10 million, contrary to section 400.2B(6) of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth), and
  • Providing remittance services while unregistered, contrary to section 74(2) of the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act 2006 (Cth).

The maximum penalty for these offences are 15 and 2 years’ imprisonment respectively.

The man is scheduled to appear in Downing Centre Local Court on 26 October, 2023.

Operation Wickham began on 22 August, 2022, when the USSS alerted the AFP-led Joint Policing Cybercrime Coordination Centre (JPC3) that millions of dollars in allegedly scammed funds were being transferred from the US to an Australian business bank account.

The JPC3-coordinated investigation revealed more than $160 million had allegedly been stolen from victims world-wide. While there were some Australian victims, the majority of people scammed were from the US.

It is alleged that of the $160 million stolen in the scam, more than $100 million was laundered through the Changjiang Currency Exchange or transferred into Australian bank accounts linked to fake Australian businesses, before being moved elsewhere.

It is alleged the bank accounts were controlled by the Long River money laundering organisation, which the AFP alleges was secretly running the Changjiang Currency Exchange.

The Changjiang Currency Exchange is a prominent, multi-billion-dollar money remitting chain in Australia that is the subject of AFP-led Operation Avarus-Nightwolf.

The AFP will allege that while working at the Changjiang Currency Exchange, the alleged offender had a relationship with an offshore crime syndicate and was directly involved in the procurement of straw directors and dummy account holders for money laundering entities.

He allegedly oversaw the establishment of companies, and their associated bank accounts, in an attempt to circumvent Australia’s anti-money laundering laws, particularly those relating to funds transfers.

The man is the seventh alleged offender to be charged under Operation Wickham.

The AFP will allege that after others were arrested, intelligence led them to the alleged criminal activities of the Melbourne man.

AFP Commander Investigations Kate Ferry said the accused syndicate behind the scam allegedly tricked victims into thinking they were getting high returns on their investments.

“The majority of the money deposited into Australian bank accounts or remitted by Changjiang Currency Exchange was linked to the exploitation of an investment application called MetaTrader, and other platforms dealing in foreign exchange and cryptocurrencies.

“A key feature of the scam, was the alleged syndicate’s ability to produce dedicated software, compatible with the legitimate trading platform to misrepresent the true market value of currency rates.

“The AFP alleges victims were led to believe the vast majority of trades were successful in yielding significant financial returns, when in reality, the data was manipulated to show positive returns.

“The criminal syndicate did not stop there, they continued to encourage more deposits from victims.

The AFP has alleged the offshore syndicate:

  • Used Chinese nationals living in Australia, predominantly on student visas, to register sham Australian companies and trading licences with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC);
  • Used those Chinese nationals to set up Australian bank accounts, which were mostly linked to the sham businesses; and then,
  • Used the fake businesses, with straw directors and bank accounts to allegedly launder the scammed funds through the Changjiang Currency Exchange.

“To date, the AFP-led Criminal Assets Confiscation Taskforce has restrained more than $21 million held in Australian bank accounts that is suspected to be the proceeds of the investment scam that were laundered through the accounts,” Commander Ferry said.

Commander Ferry said the investigation was extremely complex but specialist AFP cybercrime investigators and JPC3 partners meticulously unravelled the alleged offending.

“We encourage all members of the public to exercise a high degree of caution when approached by unknown entities on the internet or other online communication platforms in relation to investment opportunities, or any other type of money-making venture. If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is,” she said.

How the scam worked:

  1. The victims (the majority in the US – although there were some in Australia) were initially contacted through a text message on a communications application, like WhatsApp, or a social media platform.
  2. After communicating with the victims for some time, the scammers encouraged the victims to invest their money into legitimate trading platforms, such as MetaTrader.
  3. The scammers, using the trust they instilled in the victims and the manipulations of the data shown on these trading platforms, scammed victims out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The JPC3 brings together the powers, experience, investigative and intelligence capabilities of all Australian policing jurisdictions and key international law enforcement and industry partners.

The JPC3 identifies organised cybercriminals targeting Australia, disrupts their criminal activities and prevents further harm and financial loss to the Australian community.

Learn more about how to protect yourself from cybercrime through these short cybercrime prevention videos.

If you are a victim of cybercrime, report it to police via ReportCyber.

If you need assistance with reporting cybercrime to police, please call the 24/7 Australian Cyber Security Centre (ASCS) Hotline on 1300 CYBER1 (1300 292 371).

Contact your financial institution if your details have been compromised.

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