An alleged crime syndicate has been busted, with police accusing it of using a money transfer chain with offices in major Australian cities as a front to launder almost $229m.
The Australian federal police (AFP) has accused the Changjiang Currency Exchange, which has 12 shopfronts across the nation, of being secretly run by an underworld money laundering syndicate. The so-called Long River syndicate has been accused of laundering almost $229m in illegal funds through the business in the past three years.
More than 300 officers conducted 20 raids across every mainland state on Wednesday and seized $50m in luxury property and vehicles as part of the AFP-led Operation Avarus-Nightwolf.
Four Chinese nationals and three Australians were arrested across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs and charged over their alleged involvement in the syndicate. They were expected to face Melbourne magistrates court on Thursday.
The probe was in part triggered by AFP investigators noticing that the exchange chain opened and updated new and existing shopfronts in the heart of Sydney during Covid-19 lockdowns.
Stephen Dametto, the AFP’s assistant commissioner, said it sent alarm bells ringing among money laundering investigators.
“It was just a gut feeling – it didn’t feel right,” he said. “Many international students and tourists had returned home, and there was no apparent business case for Changjiang Currency Exchange to expand.”
The AFP identified alleged links between the exchange chain, one of the largest independently owned remitters in the country, and known money laundering organisations. It is alleged the exchange chain has transferred more than $10b in the past three financial years.
Most of the funds were from law-abiding customers, but the AFP alleges the company simultaneously facilitated a system for organised criminals to secretly transfer unlawfully obtained money in and out of Australia.
In all, the business allegedly laundered $228,883,561 between 2020 and 2023.
It is alleged some of the laundered money was proceeds of crime, including from cyber-enabled scams, the trafficking of illicit goods and violent crimes.
Police alleged the syndicate would coach its criminal customers on how to create fake business paperwork, such as false invoices and bank statements. This allegedly allowed criminal customers and Changjiang Currency Exchange to demonstrate that unlawfully gained money was from lawful sources if transfers came to authorities’ attention.
Syndicate members allegedly amassed a significant amount of illegal wealth from their criminal activity.
“We allege they lived the high life by eating at Australia’s most extravagant restaurants, drinking wine and sake valued in the tens of thousands of dollars, travelling on private jets, driving vehicles purchased for $400,000 and living in expensive homes, with one valued at more than $10 million,” Dametto said.
The syndicate also allegedly spent $200,000 each on fake passports, enabling members to flee if officers ever came knocking.
Dametto alleged that Long River was a sophisticated and complex money laundering group, which had entrenched itself into the fabric of the financial services industry.
“We allege that enabled it to exploit vulnerabilities far more easily,” he said.
“We expect our charges will significantly impact on the amount of illicit money being remitted in and out of Australia in the coming days alone.”