By Diane Claire J. Jiao, Senior Reporter

Bank liability in Aman probed

Posted on January 14, 2013

THE CENTRAL bank is reviewing whether banks committed anti-money laundering lapses in the alleged pyramid scam orchestrated by the Aman Futures Group Philippines, Inc.

Asked if the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) is looking into whether banks were involved in the Aman Futures controversy or if they complied with anti-money laundering rules, BSP Deputy Governor Nestor A. Espenilla, Jr. said in a text message last week: “We are already looking into it. I’m just not at liberty to discuss specifics.”

The Aman Futures scandal exploded last October after the firm was accused of fleecing some 15,000 investors of as much as P12 billion.

Aman Futures had promised its investors -- mostly farmers, fisherfolk, government employees, market vendors and the like -- a 30-40% return on investment within eight days and a 50-80% return after 18 to 20 days.

The company, which operated mostly in Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur, had told its clients the profit would come from a deal with Malaysian brokerage firm Okachi (Malaysia) Sdn. Bhd., which was supposedly engaged in futures trading of commodities such as oil, manganese, palm oil and nickel.

It turned out, though, that early investors were allegedly being paid using the contributions of new clients. The scam crumbled when Aman Futures ran out of money to pay its stable of customers the promised yields.

Aman Futures founder Manuel K. Amalilio has since fled the country when his offices were shut down last September. Intelligence reports place him in Kota Kinabalu and the Justice department has assured that talks were ongoing with Malaysia to secure the suspect.

Charges of syndicated estafa were filed against seven incorporators of the company last week, followed by arrest warrants.

In November, the Court of Appeals issued a 20-day freeze order on all bank accounts and finance companies linked to Aman Futures. It was extended by six months in December. Banks complied with the freeze order, the Justice department said, but it did not disclose the contested amount of assets.

For its part, the BSP implements strict guidelines against “dirty” money or money that comes from unlawful activity, such as sale of illegal drugs, kidnap for ransom, graft and corrupt practices, robbery and extortion, illegal gambling and fraud, among others.

Under Circular No. 706, all banks are mandated to know their customers at all times to “prevent suspicious individuals or entities from opening or maintaining an account or transacting with the [institution].”

They must also identify, assess, monitor and control risks related to money laundering and comply with the Anti-Money Laundering Act.

Any transaction in excess of P500,000 within one banking day must be reported to the Anti-Money Laundering Council within 10 working days from their occurrence.

Banks must also report suspicious transactions, regardless of the amount involved, such as when the client is not properly identified or the transaction deviates from the client’s track record. Other circumstances include money that is “not commensurate with the business or financial capacity of the client” or has “no underlying legal or trade obligation, purpose or economic justification.”

These rules cover not just banks, but a host of other entities: offshore banking units, quasi-banks, trust entities, non-stock savings and loan associations, pawnshops, foreign exchange dealers, money changers remittance agents and electronic money issuers.

The central bank is considering stronger anti-money laundering guidelines in light of the controversies abroad as drug cartels in the United States were able to hide their money in various banks, primarily in HSBC Holdings Plc.

“Know-your-customer” processes will be tightened, Mr. Espenilla said earlier, and banks will be required to build up profiles of their clients and validate that information regularly.