A total of 3,050 people from outside Macau had been apprehended by the Macau police in 2018 for alleged involvement in illicit money exchange activities either inside or around the city’s casinos, said Macau’s Secretary for Security, Wong Sio Chak (pictured in archive photo), in a media briefing on Tuesday.
All of the suspects were “repatriated” said the official – although he didn’t specify their place of origin – rather than being dealt with via the Macau courts. Mr Wong didn’t clarify what – if any – process or sanctions might have been applied outside Macau against those concerned. In a number of cases reported on last year, the suspects were said to have been from mainland China.
Of the tally apprehended for such alleged illicit money exhange, 2,269 individuals had been banned from Macau previously, said Mr Wong.
During Tuesday’s briefing, Mr Wong mentioned the local government’s concern over the security risk posed by illicit money exchange activities in or near Macau’s casino properties, saying they had an “apparent negative impact” on the city as a whole, leading in some cases to either robberies or scams against people using such illicit services, or brawls among those providing the services.
In May, June and July there had been several well-publicised crackdowns on alleged illegal money changing in the Cotai casino district. Prior to the police operation in May, a video of an apparent fight close to the Venetian Macao Resort Hotel – involving more than 10 men – was widely shared on social media. Police had clarified that the incident appeared to relate to “money exchange” matters.
On Tuesday Mr Wong pledged that Macau’s security forces would work with their mainland China counterparts to investigate the backgrounds of people apprehended on suspicion of illicit money exchange activities in Macau. “We will also see if such activities involve any organised operations,” Mr Wong told the media. That was understood to be a reference to the possible involvement of organised crime – in the Chinese context commonly referred to as ‘triads’ – in illicit money exchange in Macau.
A number of investment analysts covering the gaming industry have said a possible motivation for unauthorised money exchange on the part of service provider and service buyer would be an attempt either to get a cheaper service charge percentage on each transaction than that offered by banks and official money changers in the case of small amounts, or in the case of larger transactions, to get round China’s currency export controls.
Referring to security efforts against that trade in 2018, Mr Wong stated: “This year so far, we stopped and checked 545 people, and all of them were eventually sent back [to mainland China].” He added: Among them 411 people were banned from entering Macau again.”
When answering questions from local media, Secretary Wong offered possible reasons for an uptick in such activity.
“There have been specific measures that are put in place to tackle money laundering, and a cap was implemented on the daily amount of money that a [mainland Chinese] client can withdraw [from ATMs here]. Also, there is a face-recognition mechanism installed at the ATM machines here,” Mr Wong said.
“But as people [from mainland China] still want to withdraw money to gamble, this had led to an increase in frauds related to these [illicit] money exchange activities,” the official added.
The Monetary Authority of Macao has been introducing tighter, real-time monitoring systems for payments and cash withdrawals made using UnionPay bank cards in Macau. That includes the use of automated teller machines (ATMs) with the ability to perform facial recognition scans.
Since January 2018 mainland Chinese have been restricted to an annual CNY100,000 (US$14,939) limit per person for cash withdrawals when using overseas ATMs. In the past, China’s regulatory definition of “overseas” transactions has included ones performed in Macau.
In December 2016, the Monetary Authority of Macao already had set a limit of either MOP5,000 (US$618) or HKD5,000 per transaction for withdrawals at the city’s ATMs for customers using bank cards issued by mainland China banks.
During the Tuesday briefing, Mr Wong said the city’s Judiciary Police had recorded during 2018 an aggregate 1,884 reports and investigations into gaming-related crimes, a 2 percent year-on-year increase.
The local police label cases as gaming-related when they take place inside a casino or in its surroundings.
Loan-sharking up 2018
Gaming-related cases of suspected usury – i.e., unlawful lending of money, a practice more commonly known as loan-sharking – increased last year by 25.9 percent year-on-year to 554, showed the data from the Secretary of Security’s office.
During 2018, a total of 309 cases of gaming-related suspected unlawful detention was recorded, reflecting a one-third decline in year-on-year terms of cases of that type. Such cases are typically associated in Macau with loan-sharking connected to gambling.
“In 2018, a main cause for a rise in the number of loan-sharking cases was that the police had been actively pursuing investigations and crackdowns against such crimes. Because of this targeted action, more loan-sharking cases had been prevented from being developed into unlawful detention cases, and hence this type of crime has been effectively controlled and the occurrence has continuously been lowered,” Mr Wong said.
The official noted that most of the victims and suspects in matters of gaming-related usury and unlawful detention were non-locals, and many of the scenarios took place inside casino properties.
At the Tuesday briefing, the Secretary also mentioned that the police had requested web hosting companies working outside Macau to block or remove so far a total of 464 alleged illicit gambling websites. Some of these websites contained pirated references to Macau casino brands.
The official added that so far 361 such websites had been shut down, an act that had prevented people from being scammed by “fraudulent gaming websites”.
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