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Bangladesh Bank Heist, Another Big Embarrassment for the Philippines

Bangladesh's central bank in Dhaka. Photo: Reuters/Ashikur Rahman

he crime syndicate that pulled of this high-tech heist obviously did its homework. They knew how to move millions of dollars clandestinely from the Bangladesh central bank's account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and were to move it to—the Philippines.

The heist would have actually been a billion dollar heist if the hackers had not misspelled the word  “foundation” as “fandation” for the huge sum of money that was supposed to be transferred to the Shalika Foundation in Sri Lanka. Thanks to that spelling error, a $1 billion dollar heist was reduced to a $101 million dollar heist. The hackers still managed to send $20 million to Sri Lanka. Luckily, that amount was promptly returned by Sri Lankan officials. Unfortunately, the remaining $81 million was sent to the Philippines where it immediately vanished!

Like it or not, that says a lot about the Philippines, the Filipinos, and the country's banking system. From the perspective of money launderers our enchanted islands are magical; millions—maybe even billions—of dollars can disappear right before your very eyes. And dirty money laundered with the help of the country's bank secrecy laws, corrupt officials, crime syndicates, sloppy regulators and incompetent law enforcement can reappear pristine white on the other end.

Over the decades, the Philippines has built up a reputation as the "go-to" country when it comes to money-related scams. Wire fraud, credit card fraud, investment scams, you name it; the country seems to have more than its fair share of them. And the main enabling factor all these years has been the Philippine bank secrecy law enacted during the corrupt dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos.

After Ferdinand and Imelda literally cleaned out the Philippine treasury, the country was flat broke and in dire need of foreign reserves. So the sly dictator and his henchmen found a way to kill two birds with one stone. That stone was the Foreign Currency Deposit Act of the Philippines (FCDA), or Republic Act No. 6426 signed into law by the late dictator in 1974.

To attract foreign capital the FCDA offered what disreputable individuals, money launderers, and crime syndicates couldn't resist—an ironclad guarantee that the Philippine government could not look into their foreign denominated bank accounts without their written consent. This was great for Marcos and his henchmen as well—the money they stole from the people would forever be safe from prying eyes.

Today, 43 years since its signing and 28 years since Marcos kicked the bucket, this Marcos-era law continues to embarrass the country. As this heist shows, the Philippines is still the go-to place for hiding dirty money. Except now everything happens with binary code and in the blink of an eye.

The rest of the banking world has gone through significant changes since 1974. Even Switzerland's highly secretive banking laws have given way to greater transparency. The Philippines appears to be the only major holdout. Unless the FCDA is repealed or changed, the Philippines will continue to hold on to its nefarious reputation as the world's dirty money "laundromat" where crooks from all over send their dirty money to get it "cleaned." Published 4/1/2016

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