Angola Nearly Loses $500 Million to Elaborate Scam, With Assistance of High-Level Officials

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Oct 4, 2018
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A group of scammers, with the assistance of the head of Angola's central bank, nearly stole $500 million from the African nation, thwarted at the last minute only by an HSBC bank teller reporting a suspicious transaction, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The scam involved several people coordinating around the world, including Hugo Onderwater, a Dutch agricultural engineer living in Portugal; Jorge Pontes Sebastiao, the former head of an Angolan bank; José Filomeno dos Santos, the son of the former president of Angola; Samuel Barbosa da Cunha, an experienced Brazilian con man living in Tokyo; Bhishamdayal Dindyal, a chartered accountant living in London; and Valter Filipe da Silva, the former governor of the country's central bank. 

The complex scheme began when the finance ministry received a letter on letterhead from French bank BNP Paribas (which later was found to be a forgery) offering to help set up a $35 billion fund for the country. Onderwater and Sebastiao later met with the then-president's son, the central banker, and the finance minister to discuss the project, which the two said was supported by the European Central Bank (which later said it was never involved with this venture). The pair said the fund would generate amazing returns through accessing a private market for bank guarantees, which did not actually exist. The Journal noted that bank guarantees, which the SEC has warned are always fraudulent offers, are typically used in scams against individuals or companies; this is the first time a country was targeted. Despite strong reservations from the finance minister, the project was approved shortly after the meeting. For the service of setting up the fund (which was never set up) the group was paid $28.9 million. 

The scheme intensified when, in August last year, Onderwater and Pontes sent instructions to the Angolan central bank to transfer $500 million in seed money to their trustee in Tokyo, the aforementioned Barbosa, who had previously bilked Florida retirees out of their savings by promising 550 percent returns on bank guarantees. Ostensibly, this was to be the foundation of the fund that they were supposedly working on. Barbosa, in turn, directed the money to a company called Perfectbit Ltd., which was registered to the accountant Dindyal's office in London, a small storefront operation fixed between a beauty salon and a coffee shop. No one inspected the transaction for irregularities, which meant that no one caught on that the order, which had been inaccurately marked as an intrabank transfer to HSBC, was being sent to an individual account. The schemers had the money. 

The problem was actually getting to it. 

The Journal said that Dindyal and an associate of Barbosa visited several HSBC branches trying to access the money, each and every time unsuccessful. During one of these attempts, Dindyal asked a teller to transfer $2 million to Japan; the teller saw there was $500 million in the account. After the accountant could not answer additional questions, she said she couldn't make the transfer, and then alerted her superiors. This led to the whole scheme unraveling as HSBC quickly discovered the source of the money. 

A new administration, which was elected on an anti-corruption platform, began asking questions about the money, leading eventually to a meeting with Onderwater, Pontes and Barbosa, who assured them that Swiss bank Credit Suisse had guaranteed the $500 million and produced a letter to prove it (this letter was a forgery; Credit Suisse said it never made any guarantee of that sort). The new finance minister, Archer Mangueira, was not convinced. The new president, Joao Lourenco, ordered the central banker to transfer the $500 million back. Rather than return it, though, the central bank governor resigned without explanation. Frantic, the scammers tried to return the money themselves, but were still sued by the Angolan finance ministry, and the account was frozen while a criminal investigation was opened by U.K. authorities. These authorities, incidentally, returned the $500 million. 

Barbosa was arrested at Heathrow Airport. Dindyal was arrested at his home. Filomeno dos Santos, the former president’s son, and Pontes were charged with money laundering, criminal association, falsification of documents, influence peddling and stealing through fraud. Da Silva, the former central banker, was charged with criminal association, embezzlement and money laundering. A fourth man, a central-bank employee, was charged with criminal association and embezzlement. Onderwater, Barbosa and Pontes all have denied wrongdoing, and in fact all three have blamed each other for the criminal aspect, with Onderwater saying he was tricked by Barbosa and Pontes, and Pontes and Barbosa saying they were tricked by Onderwater. 

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