SINGAPORE: A 20-year-old man linked to the OCBC phishing scams late last year on Wednesday (Apr 20) admitted to offences that include money laundering.
Leong Jun Xian is the first to be dealt with among those accused of being involved in the scam.
A total of S$13.7 million was lost in the spate of phishing scams that affected 790 customers, according to OCBC Bank in an update in January.
Leong pleaded guilty to five charges. Two of them were for assisting another to retain benefits from criminal conduct, and one was for being a member of a locally linked organised crime group.
Aside from his involvement in the scams, Leong also pleaded guilty to two charges of rioting. Ten other charges will be considered for sentencing.
His seven co-accused for the money laundering and organised crime charges are Kong Jia Quan, 19; Lim Kai Ze, 21; Jovan Soh Jun Yan, 20; Muhammad Khairuddin Eskandariah, 20; Brayden Cheng Ming Yan, 19; Roy Peh Yong Rong, 19; and a 17-year-old girl identified as "A2" in court documents.
District Judge Kessler Soh called for reformative training and probation suitability reports, and ordered that Leong be remanded for a week at a reformative training centre.
He will return to court for sentencing next week.
DISCOVERY OF THE MONEY LAUNDERING GROUP
The court heard that between Dec 8, 2021, and Jan 19, police received 768 reports from OCBC bank account holders who fell prey to phishing scams. The victims had lost a total of about S$12.8 million.
Victims received SMSes from the scammers, who were impersonating OCBC Bank, informing them of fake banking issues and containing a link to resolve the issues.
When victims clicked on the link, they were taken to a fake OCBC login page where they entered their login details. This allowed the scammers to gain control of their bank accounts and make unauthorised transactions.
Investigations revealed that two people, Peh and Tan Shu Kai, had received funds originating from the scam victims.
The police conducted raids at two flats in Yishun Avenue 6 and Edgefield Plains on Feb 22. Sixteen people were arrested, including Leong and the co-accused.
Authorities also seized 112 ATM cards and debit cards from the Yishun flat. Investigations into these are ongoing.
LEONG'S ROLE IN THE GROUP
Leong and the co-accused worked together to provide money laundering services to various unknown individuals believed to be linked to overseas syndicates, said the prosecution.
They did this by finding and providing control of bank accounts to the syndicates.
They provided at least 16 bank accounts to the syndicates in Telegram chat groups between last December and this February, with Leong personally providing 12 of the accounts.
The 16 accounts received almost S$600,000 from victims of various scams, including the OCBC phishing scams.
Leong and the co-accused communicated with the syndicates in three Telegram chat groups known as "K2 1.505", "G5 xiao ye che" and one named with the emoji of a Singapore flag.
They worked for an individual known as "William", who also used the name "Huang Fei Hong" in the K2 chat group, a "Huang Da Ge" in the G5 chat group and a "Terry" in the Singapore flag chat group, whom Leong and his co-accused believed to be based overseas.
Leong and his co-accused also used another Telegram chat group named "Mobile Legends" for their internal communications.
Leong was a member of all four chat groups. His role involved finding bank accounts from unknown individuals on Telegram and providing their bank account details to the syndicates in the chat groups.
He also instructed agents working under him to find such bank accounts, and gave instructions to Peh and A2 to withdraw cash from the accounts as directed by the syndicates.
On one occasion on Dec 28 last year, Leong and Kong instructed A2 to withdraw a total of S$81,800 from her bank account. The money was traceable to two victims of the OCBC phishing scams.
A2 handed the money to Leong, who used a portion of it to pay bank account holders who had sold him their accounts.
William promised Leong a salary of S$3,000 a month, with an additional S$600 to S$800 for each bank account he provided.
Leong admitted to knowing that the money put into the accounts he provided was "not clean", and that he had reason to believe the individuals he communicated with in the chat groups were involved in criminal activity, said the prosecution.
LEONG WAS A LYNCHPIN: PROSECUTION
Deputy Public Prosecutor Lee Wei Liang said that while Leong himself did not run the phishing scams, he was a "lynchpin" akin to "middle management" in the money laundering organisation that provided services to the overseas scammers for profit.
These money laundering arrangements were an integral part of the "eco-system" in which the scammers operated, said the prosecutor, adding: "Without such tools, the syndicates are toothless."
Mr Lee cited the gravity of Leong's offences and his pattern of offending, which he said had escalated over time, to argue that probation was not a "realistic" sentence for Leong. He asked the court to call for a reformative training report.
The scale of offending by the money laundering group was unprecedented, and the societal impact on the victims being scammed of their hard-earned savings "cannot be overstated", he said.
He highlighted that group was organised, with each member holding defined roles and the entire organisation being "geared for efficiency".
Calling Leong a "serial and prolific" offender, Mr Lee said the fact that the youth had no prior criminal record "only means the law had not caught him with until this point".
Probation would send the wrong signal that a youthful offender could carry out such crimes with impunity, added the prosecutor.
HE NEEDS EDUCATION AND SUPPORT: DEFENCE
Defence lawyer Audrey Koo of Populus Law said Leong was committed to not reoffending. She said he had strictly abided by his curfew hours and his relationship with his parents had improved since his arrest.
The lawyer said that her client's money laundering offences were motivated by greed, but argued that he had not considered the long-term consequences of his actions given his young age.
"At his age, he was easily baited by the promise of easy money dangled in front of him" as he did not have the maturity, said Ms Koo, adding that a probation officer would be able to guide him to assess the risks when faced with such decisions.
In calling for a probation report, she told the court that Leong needed education and the support of his family.
She also argued that the syndicate made use of young offenders like Leong, saying: "If it was not him, it would have been another 20-year-old lured by the easy money."
In response, the prosecution reiterated that Leong played a "central role" in the offences for which he was being sentenced.
Judge Soh called for both the probation and reformative training reports, saying that the probation report would allow him to have a better understanding of Leong's background.
The offence of facilitating the control of benefits from criminal conduct is punishable with up to 10 years' jail, a fine of up to S$500,000 or both.
Those found guilty of being a member of a locally linked organised crime group can be jailed for up to five years, fined up to S$100,000 or both
The punishment for rioting is up to seven years in jail and caning.