From South Asian terrorist to Tinder-based scams: Swiss authorities crack down on launderers

From South Asian terrorist to Tinder-based scams: Swiss authorities crack down on launderers
A national flag of Switzerland flies in front of a branch office of Swiss bank Credit Suisse in Luzern. Photo - Reuters

Berne/New Delhi: A terrorist from a South Asian country who unsuccessfully sought asylum in Switzerland, a man trying to launder money through a woman he befriended on popular dating app Tinder and a huge sum of money collected through a romance scam -- the Swiss authorities seem to be cracking down big on money laundering and terror financing from abroad.

Trying hard to shed the long-held perception of being a safe haven for undisclosed funds including those related to money laundering and terror financing, Switzerland has stepped up its cooperation with other countries, including India, when it comes to cracking down on suspected illicit wealth parked in its banks.

In its latest annual report, the Money Laundering Reporting Office Switzerland (MROS) has disclosed several interesting cases where it collaborated with overseas authorities to uncover cases of money laundering and terror financing.

Under the Swiss Money Laundering Act, the MROS receives and analyses Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) in connection with money laundering and, if necessary, forwards them to the law enforcement agencies. It functions as a relay and filtration point between financial intermediaries and the law enforcement agencies.

The MROS is also the Swiss agency to which financial intelligence units (FIUs) of other countries can make requests for mutual administrative assistance and for exchange of information concerning the cases of money laundering and terror financing.

In 2018, the MROS received 795 enquiries from FIUs of 104 countries, up from 711 enquiries from 94 countries in 2017.

The number of foreign requests concerning natural and legal persons rose to 4,671, the MROS said. The requests from foreign FIUs have more than doubled since 2011 and stood at their highest ever level in 2018, it added.

The MROS did not give the country-wise break up of the requests. The last time the MROS disclosed having received a foreign inquiry about Indians was in the year 2002.

These figures do not include the so-called spontaneous information exchange between MROS and other FIUs. In 2018, the MROS received 434 spontaneous information reports from 47 countries, up from 302 reports from 41 countries in 2017.

The MROS further said it received 132 SARs involving suspected cases of terror financing in 2018, up 159 per cent over the previous year. Of these, 88 SARs were submitted by banks, and the rest by money transmitters and other financial intermediaries.

Giving details of some cases, the MROS said a financial intermediary reported several business relationships in the name of Swiss residents related to a person, who was suspected by the authorities of his home country in South Asia of being engaged in terrorist activity.

The suspect was related to a former clan leader of a province in the South Asian country in question, and a member of an armed separatist group thought to be responsible for attacks on gas pipelines, polling stations and the country's armed forces.

The MROS found that he had narrowly escaped a military operation in which his relative, the former leader of a provincial tribe, had been killed. Since then, he had been on the run and taking an indirect route, he arrived in Switzerland, where he applied for asylum.

His asylum application was rejected, but his wife, who was not politically active, and his children were allowed to stay. Investigations further revealed that after leaving Switzerland, he travelled to another European country, where he is thought to still be living.

His family has considerable assets apparently deposited in banks all over the world. The wealth is said to have been generated mainly through the exploitation of natural resources, the MROS said.

In another case, a financial intermediary noticed that a third party had paid tens of thousands of Swiss francs into the private account of one of their clients.

When the client came to withdraw the money, the financial intermediary asked her for information regarding origin of the money. First, she failed to provide any information, but later said the money was not for her, but for an African acquaintance who she had known for three months.

She said she was asked to withdraw the money in cash and hand it over to a third party, failing which she might face serious consequences.

The MROS found the suspect was an African national living in Switzerland, whom the woman had become acquainted with a few months earlier over the dating app Tinder.

The MROS learned that the man had recently been arrested and it therefore forwarded the SAR to the criminal prosecution authority, which opened a criminal probe concerning threatening behaviour, coercion and money laundering.

In yet another case, a financial intermediary reported that a client, who was the legal guardian of her child, attempted to transfer money to a person abroad through the child's account, of which she was the sole signatory.

It was found that large payments and cash withdrawals had been made into and out of the account. The MROS examined payments since 2008 and discovered that more than 200,000 Swiss francs had been redirected up to 2017. It was also found that the client had transferred part of the money directly into her own account.

The MROS probe revealed that the payment to the person abroad was probably linked to a romance scam, a form of internet fraud whereby fraudsters dupe their victims into believing they have found love in order to obtain financial benefits from them.

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