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Thursday, May 26, 2016, 09:35

US$9m stolen in Ecuador moved to 23 HK firms

By Reuters

HONG KONG/CHICAGO - Cyber thieves who stole US$12 million from an Ecuadorian bank in 2015 routed the funds through 23 companies registered in Hong Kong, some of them with no clear business activity, according to previously unreported court filings and judicial rulings.

The court papers offer a first glimpse into where some of the money was moved after it reached accounts in Hong Kong.

The filings stem from a lawsuit filed in early 2015 by Ecuador's Banco del Austro (BDA) in Hong Kong against the web of companies that received or handled more than US$9 million in stolen funds, bank records submitted to the territory's Court of First Instance show. The BDA lawsuit alleged the companies had been "unjustly enriched" and sought recovery of the money.

The remaining US$3 million was routed to entities in Dubai and elsewhere, according to separate court filings in the US. Those transfers are not the subject of litigation in Hong Kong.

The cyber thieves allegedly used the SWIFT global messaging system to move the funds. SWIFT, a conduit for bank money transfers worldwide, also was the network used to move US$81 million out of Bangladesh Bank in February.

According to the Hong Kong court filings, BDA submitted criminal reports to police in both Hong Kong and Ecuador about the transfers. The content of those reports was not part of the court record reviewed by Reuters.

The attacks have caught the attention of global investigative agencies. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bangladesh authorities are leading a search for criminals behind the February heist, which ranks among the largest ever.

In the Ecuadorian heist, the money was transferred by Wells Fargo based on authenticated SWIFT messages, and both BDA and the US bank now believe those funds were stolen by unidentified hackers, according to documents in a BDA lawsuit filed against Wells Fargo in New York this year.

It was not clear whether the Hong Kong Police have launched an official probe. A spokesman for the agency declined to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

The Ecuador attorney general's office did not respond to a request for comment. The FBI and BDA also declined comment.

Initially, cyber thieves moved US$9.139 million of the more than US$12 million they stole from BDA into the Hong Kong accounts of four companies at HSBC and Hang Seng Bank.

At least US$3.1 million of the funds were then routed from those four companies to 19 "second layer" bank accounts, meaning the funds made a second hop to another set of Hong-Kong registered companies, the papers show.

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