Watch your bank accounts
“I just read it in the Inquirer.” “When it was already in the papers.” “So nauna sa dyaryo (it came out first in the newspaper).”
I heard these at the Senate hearing two days ago where persons of interest gave their accounts on how they learned cyberhackers had siphoned $81 million from Bangladesh’s central bank account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and sent it to the Philippines for laundering. When red flags popped up, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) followed the trail, but not fast enough. Much of the money had already gone through suspicious bank accounts at RCBC Jupiter, to a money remittance firm, then to a person operating in a casino, and then to no one knows where.
To paraphrase an AMLC official’s words, given the magnitude of the amount, and the process it went through, this operation must have been planned a long way back. Several bank accounts with a measly $500 in initial deposit were opened middle of last year and lay dormant until …
Every time I heard the Inquirer’s report mentioned at the hearing, I could not help thinking: Our business reporter knew about it earlier than most of you people did? Using street Pinoy journalese, I say to the outscooped (in this case, people who ought to have known): “Nakatulog kayo sa pansitan (You were caught dozing in the noodle house)?”
They should start watching the TV series “CSI: Cyber,” which is about the FBI’s Cyber Unit tracking down cybercriminals, starring Ted Danson et al. I do learn a lot from the different “CSI” (crime scene investigation) shows and how scientific methods are used to solve crimes. The dramatized plots may be fictitious but they are not far from reality.
I watched the Senate hearing with keen interest, and listened to the questions of the senators and the answers of the persons of interest. I could not help conjuring a movie script based on the cross-country scenario, specially where and how it began. Indeed, this one’s for “CSI: Cyber.”
That’s the cinematic part. What I found alarming was businessman William So Go’s disclosure (if true) that he did not know a bank account had been opened in his name at RCBC Jupiter. He said bank manager Maia Deguito admitted it to him when she met with him to apologize and even offered him P10 million to ease his woes. Go said he got to know Deguito when she was the branch manager of an EastWest bank branch where he has an account. That was before Deguito transferred to RCBC. But Go said he was not an RCBC Jupiter account holder. How in heaven’s name did Deguito open an RCBC account for him? Why did she pick him?
And where are the other four RCBC account holders through whose accounts hot money also passed? Are their names those of real persons?
What if one day you wake up to find that huge sums had passed through your bank account without your knowledge? Or worse, that someone, a bank manager no less, opened an account in your name, for money laundering purposes? And that you are now under investigation? Who will believe you that you had nothing to do with it? How do innocent bank account holders protect themselves? And will the truly guilty account holder simply feign innocence and ignorance and get away with it? If something like this could happen in a premier RCBC branch in Makati, it can happen anywhere!
Nongovernment organizations, too, can easily be conduits of hot money. We have already learned in the case of the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) scam that fly-by-night NGOs were used by politicians in cahoots with alleged scam queen Janet Napoles (now in jail and on trial) to plunder government funds. They set up NGOs with fancy names that suggested the poor were top priority.
Even NGOs and Church agencies of good standing led by highly respected ecclesiastics can fall victim to sticky fingers in their ranks (I know a case right now!) but sometimes these timorous men in robes are inclined to “let it go” without thinking that the missing Church funds were raised with much effort in countries where they came from and that these were meant for human development purposes. To use a pop acronym, WWJD (what would Jesus do)? He would ask these ecclesiastics why they were not good stewards and what they did to the talents he left them.
Today Deguito will disclose what she knows in a closed-door Senate executive session. Why did she do what she did? Who made her do it? The cryptic statements she made at Tuesday’s hearing suggest that she is not likely to accept sole responsibility for the “suspicious transactions,” notwithstanding RCBC president Lorenzo Tan’s protestations of innocence.
Tan has denied recruiting Deguito into RCBC, as she claimed. He made it known that he does not deal with procedures at branch level, and stressed that “bank managers are five levels beneath me.” Deguito must have felt like a speck of dust.
Remittance firm Philrem’s head Salud Bautista seemed to suggest that delivering P600 million ($12.87 million converted into pesos) and $18 million in cash to a high-roller and junket operator for casinos, Chinese Weikang Xu, was all in a day’s work. Sen. Ralph Recto must have squirmed because Bautista stopped talking and made faces. (She was making faces all the time, making me wish Sen. Miriam Santiago were in the room to stare her down.) She continued to blithely say she did not know Weikang Xu but she had his ID.
How many IDs do we present in order to assert our identity when we make transactions? And yet for Bautista, to deliver that staggering amount of cash she only needed a text message from the RCBC branch manager and a photocopied ID of the recipient. No one asked what that huge amount looks like, and if it fits in a bag.
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