SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian police have arrested seven members of an alleged Chinese crime syndicate for laundering hundreds of millions of dollars through one of the country’s largest money remitters after a giant sting operation involving U.S. Homeland Security.
Police said on Thursday the Chinese Long River crime syndicate allegedly laundered A$229 million ($143 million) through the Changjiang Currency Exchange, one of the country’s largest independently-owned remitters with dozens of shops nationwide, between 2020 and 2023.
More than 330 police and other specialists arrested seven alleged members of the syndicate, including four Chinese nationals, on Wednesday during 20 search warrants across five states.
“This alleged syndicate was operating in plain sight with shiny shopfronts across the country – it was not operating in the shadows like other money laundering organisations,” Australian Federal Police Eastern Command Assistant Commissioner Stephen Dametto said in a statement on Thursday.
Investigators suspicions were first raised when the exchange opened new branches during COVID despite the pandemic meaning many of its international tourist and student customers had returned home, according to Dametto.
A formal investigation, codenamed Operation Avarus-Nightwolf began in August 2022 with the help of six other agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations.
Police allege the syndicate camouflaged the proceeds of cyber scams, illicit goods trafficking and other crime within the exchange’s mostly lawful daily transactions, which were as high as A$100 million.
The proceeds allegedly funded an extravagant lifestyle of expensive restaurants, private jets and luxury homes, one valued at more than A$10 million. Police have quarantined more than A$50 million in assets.
Police also alleged the syndicate had purchased fake passports, valued at A$200,000 each, in case members needed to flee Australia.
The seven arrested, aged between 35 to 40, will appear in a Melbourne court on Thursday.
($1 = 1.5931 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Lewis Jackson; Editing by Michael Perry)