Swiss: 1,500 money-laundering cases last year

AP News
Posted: May 14, 2013 1:50 PM
Swiss: 1,500 money-laundering cases last year

GENEVA (AP) — Unpaid fees lead to safe deposit caches of suspicious paintings and expensive jewelry. A foreign client's offshore deposits turn up possibly forged documents from the sale of tanks and high-caliber weapons to an African defense ministry.

They were among more than 1,500 suspected money-laundering cases that Swiss authorities disrupted last year, including 15 linked to terrorist financing, officials said Tuesday.

In all, there were 1,585 "suspicious activity reports" for 2012 involving 3.15 billion Swiss francs ($3.3 billion) — just six of the reports accounted for almost half of all the money. The past two years have seen an almost 50 percent jump in the number of cases compared with previous years.

Two-thirds of the cases were linked to banking, and more than 200 cases involved more than 100,000 Swiss francs ($104,000). The rest were mainly tied to payment services, fiduciary and asset managers.

Switzerland has in recent years tried to shed its image as a haven for money laundering and tax evasion through the misuse of its vaunted banking secrecy. Authorities have set up police units and task forces to crack down on fraud, bribery and other financial crimes and to hunt for so-called dictator assets. The government also has signed deals with other nations to provide greater assistance to foreign tax authorities seeking information on their citizens' accounts.

The report provided only a few specific details about a small number of cases. Among the cases highlighted by the report:

— A bank opened the safe deposit box of a foreign client who hadn't paid his rental fees, discovering an unusually large number of rings, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, brooches, watches, silver coins and other valuables.

— Another bank began monitoring transfers from Africa to offshore accounts that a foreign client said came from the sale of protective vests, but turned out to be from tanks and high-caliber weapons. The bank began to doubt undated contracts with an African defense ministry and other documents.

— One bank, after consulting with Swiss authorities and checking media reports, concluded the deposits that a South Asian couple had ascribed to commodity futures taken out on behalf of clients may have come from kickbacks that private companies paid to the husband for handing out government-backed agricultural loans.

Swiss federal police forwarded prosecutors 85 percent of the cases in 2012 so that they would press charges. But more than 40 percent of the 8,251 cases since 2003 are still pending, and more than half were either dismissed or suspended. Barely 4.5 percent have resulted in verdicts, the figures show.

One of the terrorist-financing cases in 2012 involved 7.45 million francs ($7.8 million) and accounted for nearly all of the money that police investigated in connected with suspected terrorists, the Swiss federal police office reported.

None of the suspects was on any official terror list, said the annual report by the police's Money Laundering Reporting Office.

Probes by the police office led prosecutors to open 13 terror financing cases connected to money laundering, membership in a criminal organization or other offenses, the report said. One of the cases has since been suspended.

Of the 15 terror cases, the money sent by banks, asset managers and a money transmitter went to eight Russians, six Lithuanians and one American. Half the clients sending the money were from Switzerland; the others were from Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the United States.

Though the overall number of money-laundering cases was high in 2012, the police said, they were not characterized by any exceptional political circumstances like the political upheaval in 2011 that swept across North Africa and the Middle East.

Three involved the suspected misappropriation of foreign public funds, police said, while two were connected to suspected document forgery and fraud and one concerned an alleged crime group from Asia.

Most of the cases were initially reported by a financial intermediary — banks, credit card companies, casinos, currency exchanges and others — or were based on newspaper reports or information from other third parties such as financial compliance databases.