New AFP taskforce Avarus to dig up billions in dirty cash

New AFP taskforce Avarus to dig up billions in dirty cash

An alleged 'money mule' was arrested at Sydney Airport last year (Credit: AFP). 

With billions of dollars believed to be laundered in Australia every year, the nation’s federal law enforcement agency has set up a dedicated team to target criminals trying to bankroll lavish lifestyles and further crime.

Announced today, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) has launched a new multi-agency, Taskforce Avarus, to stamp out money laundering facilitated through Australia’s financial systems and the property market.

The AFP’s investigative resources now dedicated to Avarus have executed 164 search warrants. To-date, 42 people have been charged with 66 offences relating to money laundering, with more than $250 million in cash and assets seized.

Investigations by the AFP found that one Sydney criminal gang was laundering $1 million an hour on some days in 2022.

AFP assistant commissioner eastern command Stephen Dametto said money laundering undermined Australia’s national security, the economy and social security system.

“These money laundering syndicates being targeted by the taskforce are sophisticated, international groups with one purpose - to provide a shadow economy enabling crime,’’ Assistant Commissioner Dametto said.

“While law-abiding Australians are earning an honest day’s living, paying their taxes or being good community citizens, organised crime gangs are using money gained illegally to increase their wealth.

“They are buying homes, commercial property, investing in our financial systems and living large without the financial pressures felt by ordinary Australians.”

Last month, the AFP’s Operation Avarus-Midas resulted in the arrest of nine members of an international money laundering organisation, seizing more than $200 million in assets and an additional $30 million in cryptocurrency.

Headquartered in Sydney, the group is alleged to have facilitated the movement of illicit money through multiple jurisdictions by multiple means, including exploitation of daigous (cross-border exporting), casino junkets and the informal value transfer system, which generally occurs outside the conventional banking system.

The AFP alleges the syndicate acted as an unregulated multi-national bank, able to draw on cash reserves held in multiple countries around the world to facilitate transactions for criminal clients.

In another investigation, a woman was allegedly flown around Australia to deposit cash in ATMs for a money laundering syndicate until she was arrested at Sydney Airport last year.

The AFP alleges the ‘money mule’, who was on a student visa, had millions of dollars go through her accounts. She now faces a maximum penalty of 25 years’ imprisonment.

Criminals are also believed to use safe houses, cash couriers who move large amounts to ‘drop dead zones’ such as parks, and goods like baby formula and cosmetics to transport their illicit cash.

Taskforce Avarus will combine the resources of the AFP, AUSTRAC, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and the Australian Border Force to further investigate how criminals hide their money.

“Multi-agency activities like Avarus provide an important opportunity for law enforcement partners to leverage the ABF’s substantial capabilities,” ABF Assistant Commissioner Erin Dale said.

“And so while the ABF will continue to fiercely protect the integrity of Australia’s border, Taskforce Avarus will only serve to further enhance our capability to target activities driven by criminal syndicates.”

The AFP’s announcement comes four months after federal anti-money laundering authority AUSTRAC launched a civil enforcement penalty proceeding against Star Entertainment Group (ASX: SGR) for allegedly failing to adhere to anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terrorism financing (CTF) laws.

This is on top of the $100 million fines imposed individually by the NSW Independent Casino Commission and the Queensland Attorney-General and an additional four shareholder class actions launched by law firms Phi Finney McDonald, Shine Lawyers (ASX: SHJ), Slater & Gordon and Maurice Blackburn.

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