Investigators have painted a picture of an alleged criminal syndicate "living the high life" after federal police dismantled an alleged $229 million money laundering operation they claim was masquerading as a prominent, multi-billion-dollar money exchange chain in Australia.
The Changjiang Currency Exchange, which the AFP alleges is being secretly run by the Long River money laundering syndicate, is accused of laundering almost $229 million in the proceeds of crime in the past three years.
The AFP yesterday carried out 20 search warrants across every mainland state while seizing more than $50 million in property and vehicles under AFP-led Operation Avarus-Nightwolf.
Four Chinese nationals and three Australian citizens have been charged for their alleged involvement in the money laundering syndicate and are expected to appear in Melbourne Magistrates' Court today.
Those charged include four men and three women.
The Changjiang Currency Exchange, which has 12 shop fronts in every mainland state, is now subject to regulatory action by AUSTRAC.
The AFP claims the company attempted to appear as a law-abiding money remittance company, including by handing out anti-money laundering resources to customers.
The AFP will allege it identified links between known money laundering organisations and the Changjiang Currency Exchange, which piqued the attention of investigators when the company opened new and updated existing shopfronts in Sydney during COVID-19 lockdowns.
The Changjiang Currency Exchange has transferred in excess of $10 billion in the past three financial years, the AFP said.
While most of these funds were involved in lawful transactions, the AFP will allege the company facilitated a system for organised criminals to secretly transfer unlawfully-obtained money in and out of Australia.
Between 2020 and 2023, the AFP claims, that amounted to $228,883,561.
It is alleged some of the money laundered was criminal activities, including cyber scams, smuggling, and violent crimes.
The AFP claims the syndicate would coach its criminal customers how to create fake business paperwork, like false invoices and bank statements.
How the alleged syndicate worked
It's alleged criminal customers and the Changjiang Currency Exchange used the fabricated paperwork to disguise the illegally-gained money as lawful.
The Changjiang Currency Exchange is accused of transferring the unlawfully-obtained funds to national and international accounts by claiming it was the legitimate business profits and business expenses of their customers.
The AFP will allege the construct of Changjiang Currency Exchange's criminal enterprise, and accomplices allegedly recruited within the financial sector, also enabled syndicate members to financially benefit from the proceeds of crime and tax evasion between 2020-2023.
It is alleged that working with legal and illicit funds, the company was able to transfer up to $100 million a day for customers in Australia and throughout the world, with the volume of transfers masking the alleged laundering of tainted money.
AFP Eastern Command Assistant Commissioner Stephen Dametto said it would be alleged the highly-organised syndicate purchased false passports for $200,000 each, which could have enabled members to flee the country in the event law enforcement agencies became suspicious about their activities.
"The reason why this investigation was so unique and complex was that 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," Dametto said.
"During COVID-19, AFP members were still coming into work, and while most of Sydney was a ghost town, alarm bells went off among our money laundering investigators when they noticed Changjiang Currency Exchange opened and updated new and existing shopfronts in the heart of Sydney.
"It was just a gut feeling – it didn't feel right. Many international students and tourists had returned home, and there was no apparent business case for Changjiang Currency Exchange to expand."
Dametto claimed the syndicate had profited from the alleged laundering.
"We allege they lived the high life by eating at Australia's most extravagant restaurants, drinking wine and sake valued in the tens of thousands of dollars, travelling on private jets, driving vehicles purchased for $400,000 and living in expensive homes, with one valued at more than $10 million," Dametto said.