SVA interviewed by SCMP on Southeast Asia’s Casino Scam Hubs

Forget Macau’s junket launderers, dirty Chinese cash has a new home: Southeast Asia’s casino scam hubs

  • An anti-corruption crackdown in Asia’s gambling capital has decimated its once-booming junket industry, scattering financial criminals to the winds
  • They’ve wound up in the shady special economic zones of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar – and the loosely regulated casinos of the Philippines and Vietnam.

Billions of dollars of illegal Chinese funds are exiting mainland China and passing through Southeast Asia’s online gambling and scam centres, as they rapidly replace Macau ’s gaming junkets as the route of choice for financial criminals.

Some of this dirty money has washed up in Singapore, but the city state, which prides itself on its squeaky-clean reputation, is spearheading an international fight against money laundering.

“There was, before 2022, a wave of funds coming out of mainland China in breach of capital-control regulations and some of that was passing through unlawful gambling activities in Southeast Asia and Macau,” said Steve Vickers, CEO of Steve Vickers and Associates, a regional political and corporate risk consultancy.

“The former gambling junkets in Macau have been decimated. In their place, illicit gambling syndicates are resorting to using poorly regulated online gambling activities in Vietnam, and clearing systems in Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries. The Philippines is huge for illicit online gambling.”

In recent years, Southeast Asia’s casino industry has experienced exponential growth, with more than 340 licensed and unlicensed casinos in operation by early 2022, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report in January. This followed a series of enforcement actions in Macau, the report explained, which were driven partly by efforts to tackle corruption, money laundering, and illegal capital outflows from mainland China.

Between 2019 and 2023, the new measures resulted in the arrests and convictions of a number of Macau junket tycoons including Alvin Chau and Levo Chan, whom the UNODC report described as two of the world’s largest junket operators.

Chau was arrested in November 2021 and sentenced to 18 years in prison in Macau in January last year. Chan was sentenced to 14 years, later reduced to 13 years, last April.

As a result of the clampdown, operators have been relocating from Macau to the special economic zones of Southeast Asia, the UNODC report said – as evidenced by a sizeable drop in the number of licensed junkets in Asia’s gambling capital, plunging from a high of 235 in 2014 to just 36 last year, with only 12 still thought to be in operation.

“Many illegal online casino[s] in Southeast Asia have diversified their business lines into cyberfraud operations, with extensive evidence of infiltration of organised crime within casinos and SEZs [special economic zones] for the purposes of concealing various illicit activities,” the UNODC report said.

Many moved their bases of operation deeper into more loosely regulated jurisdictions like Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines, as well as the lawless border areas of conflict-riven Myanmar, amid the pandemic as they also began turning their hands to cyberfraud.

On April 13, China’s Ministry of Public Security announced that 130 Chinese nationals had been extradited from Cambodia to Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, that day on suspicion of involvement in cross-border gambling and online fraud. They were the first batch of 670 Chinese suspects to be repatriated from the Southeast Asian nation, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

The ministry said the crackdown – a joint operation between Chinese and Cambodian police that focused on the coastal city of Sihanoukville – had “achieved notable results”.

By a long strip of beach at the southern tip of Sihanoukville sits the former village of Otres, now rapidly being swallowed up by a development zone of sprawling casino complexes and walled-off compounds complete with their own flats, offices, supermarkets and other facilities.

Inside the compounds, armed security patrol as abductees are forced to work 12 hours a day, six days a week staffing illegal betting operations, carrying out cryptocurrency fraud and preying on people with “ pig-butchering ” scams, according to victim testimony cited in an October 10 report from the Asian Racing Federation and Hong Kong-based NGO the Mekong Club. As many as 10,000 people are thought to be held captive in Sihanoukville at any one time, the report said – most of them Chinese nationals, alongside some victims from elsewhere in Asia and Africa.

“Pig butchering” scams, or sha zhu pan in Chinese, involve the perpetrator building a relationship, often romantic, with a victim over many months before convincing them to invest money into a fake venture – akin to fattening up, then slaughtering, a pig.

Before authorities finally began taking action in late 2022, Cambodia had become the “epicentre for trafficking” linked to online betting and cyberscams run by organised-crime, the Asian Racing Federation report said, with Sihanoukville’s special economic zone, in particular, being “extremely popular” for its low taxes and easily obtained casino licences.

“This transformed the beachside town, and by early 2019, there were close to 100 casinos; huge, often poorly regulated construction projects; and a massive influx of mostly Chinese people, 500,000 at the peak,” it said, adding that many of the casinos were being run by criminals previously convicted of illegal betting in China.

Illegal betting and cyber fraud are big business for the scam syndicates, which rake in an estimated US$40 billion to US$100 billion per year from their operations in Cambodia, the Philippines, Laos and Myanmar, according to the report, with as many as 250,000 people thought to be working in the underground industry – often against their will – across those four nations alone.

Beijing’s assessment puts the figures even higher, with an estimated 5 million people believed to be involved in the sector as of 2020 and US$157 billion in capital outflows from China reported by the Chinese government, the UNODC report said.

Singapore currently holds the presidency of the main international organisation that works to combat money laundering, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which has had Singaporean T. Raja Kumar as its president since July 2022.

Under his tenure, which lasts until June 30 this year, the FATF has made depriving criminals of the proceeds of crime a priority – with the organisation agreeing in October on amendments to its guidelines that aim to “provide countries with a much stronger toolbox” for asset recovery.

It also launched a new initiative focused on countering illicit financial flows from cyber-enabled fraud – including money laundering – in partnership with Interpol and the Egmont Group, an international network of financial intelligence units working together to combat economic crimes.

“Criminals are taking advantage of social media and messaging platforms to recruit money mules across borders at scale,” the FATF said in a November report about the new initiative.

“Virtual services, such as remote online account opening, also allow criminals to easily set up foreign accounts and launder proceeds abroad, with financial transactions being executed at near-instantaneous speeds.”

It warned that organised crime had been quick to exploit vulnerabilities in emergent sectors such as fintech and e-commerce, and called for jurisdictions across the region – and wider world – to join forces to intercept the proceeds of cyberfraud “that are laundered across borders”.

Also in November, the FATF released a report about the “misuse of citizenship and residency” that called on governments operating so-called golden passport or visa programmes to implement safeguards.

Singapore has recent experience of criminals using paid-for passports to launder billions of US dollars through the city state. In August last year, police arrested 10 China-born suspects who held various foreign citizenships – including from Cambodia and Vanuatu – in a massive money laundering crackdown. The first conviction in the case, of a suspect with links to illegal overseas gambling, was handed down earlier this month.

“Granting citizenship and residency to wealthy investors through ‘golden’ passport and visa programmes can potentially lead to economic growth,” Kumar, the FATF president, said in a November press release.

“But they can and are being exploited by criminals and the corrupt, who want to launder their money, hide their identity and assets, or carry out further crimes.”

Risk mitigation consultancy Steve Vickers and Associates is currently working with international financial institutions across the region, including in Singapore, to help them avoid exposure to organised crime activity and dirty money coming out of mainland China, CEO Vickers said.

“The current financial climate and [Chinese] government crackdowns are very intense,” he said.

“Singapore has certainly stepped up anti-money-laundering activity and the cases they have brought are substantial,” said Vickers, noting that the city state had wanted to “make a solid demonstration” of capability and action.

“A combination of negative economic issues in mainland China plus anti-corruption and anti-capital outflows enforcement has played a role also.”

In response to the massive money laundering case that entangled some of the city state’s biggest local and international banks, Singapore has stepped up its scrutiny of family offices and tightened regulations, leading to longer wait times for new applicants and slowed growth in the sector.

Dentons Rodyk, one of Singapore’s largest law firms, is among those in the city state busy helping Chinese family offices address regulatory concerns and prove their money is clean.

“There has been increased regulatory scrutiny, not only on the source of funds and source of wealth, but also on the background of the applicants and investment professionals, as well as the family office structures,” said Loh Kia Meng, chief operating officer and a senior partner at Dentons Rodyk.

United Overseas Bank, a leading Singapore bank that was among those named in the charge sheets in the money laundering case, said in a statement that it remained committed to combating money laundering and continually worked to ensure its “due diligence checks are robust”.

“As a responsible financial institution, we are fully committed to ensuring compliance with supervisory and regulatory requirements,” it said, including through the “use of data analytics and technology solutions to fight against money laundering”.

But this increased scrutiny raises a growing concern: that just as the crackdown on junkets in Macau drove illicit gambling operators to scatter across the loosely regulated special economic zones of Southeast Asia, Singapore’s anti-money-laundering efforts risk triggering a similar migration of criminal proceeds.