Hong Kong police have arrested 20 people in a crackdown on a triad-controlled criminal syndicate that lured foreign domestic helpers with as little as HK$1,000 (US$128) each to set up bank accounts for laundering criminal proceeds.

The force on Monday said six of the suspects were local men, while the other 14 women were Indonesian domestic helpers who were allegedly paid between HK$1,000 and HK$2,500 each to open 17 bank accounts used to process HK$10 million in illegal funds.

“The amount [HK$1,000 to HK$2,500] is high when compared to the salaries of foreign domestic helpers. That was the main incentive tempting them to sell their bank accounts,” Chief Inspector So Chi-ming of the Kowloon East regional crime unit said.

So added the syndicate exploited foreign domestic helpers’ desire for quick money and lack of familiarity with local laws, and deceive them into selling their bank accounts “while using them as shields or scapegoats”.

The minimum monthly salaries for foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong increased from HK$4,730 to HK$4,870 in September last year.

Senior Inspector Ng Ming-fung of the same unit said investigations revealed the syndicate used an Indonesian domestic worker as a middle person to recruit other helpers.

Ng said meetings with domestic helpers were arranged in places such as parks, fast-food outlets, or even hotel rooms.

“The gang used mobile applications to assist domestic workers in opening bank accounts … and retained control over the passwords of these stooge accounts,” he said, adding that put the syndicate in a position to manage and manipulate the funds.

According to police, stooge account holders loan or sell their bank accounts to fraud syndicates to collect illicit money and launder crime proceeds in exchange for cash rewards.

Ng said the syndicate used 17 stooge accounts to launder HK$10 million over the past six months.

He said these accounts were linked to 39 cases of deception involving financial losses of HK$5.4 million. The cases included online romance scams and e-shopping frauds.

On Saturday, officers launched an arrest operation, code-named “Hoversmoke” and arrested six men and 14 women in a series of raids across the city.

Ng said the investigation revealed that it was a triad-controlled money laundering syndicate, with some of its core members having gang affiliations.

Police say the syndicate used 17 stooge accounts to launder HK$10 million over the past six months. Photo: Shutterstock

The suspects, aged between 29 and 63, were detained on suspicion of conspiracy to launder money – an offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison and a HK$5 million fine.

As of Monday morning, they were still being held for questioning.

Police said further arrests were possible as the investigation was ongoing, adding that officers were still tracing the final destination of the illegal funds.

The chief inspector said the domestic helpers involved had been in the city for different periods.

“Some have been in Hong Kong for several years, while others arrived in the city recently,” So said.

He said the operation was mounted in response to a noticeable increase in deception and money laundering cases involving foreign domestic helpers in the first quarter of this year.

He reminded the public, including foreign domestic helpers, that “allowing your personal bank accounts to be used by the criminals for the receipt and transfer of proceeds of crime constitutes the offence of money laundering”.

The city recorded a 42.6 per cent increase in all types of deception, with 39,824 reports received last year from 27,923 in 2022.

The amount lost went up by 89 per cent to HK$9.1 billion in 2023 from HK$4.8 billion recorded the year before.