Fake Viagra, Cialis tablets among HK’s record HK$55-M seizure of controlled drugs

Clifford Lo, South China Morning Post

Posted at Oct 25 2021 07:37 PM

Anti-impotence drugs formed the bulk of a record HK$55 million (US$7 million) haul of controlled pharmaceutical products seized in a customs crackdown on a transnational syndicate, which allegedly mailed the tablets to customers around the world from its operations centre in Hong Kong.

Customs officers arrested three women and two men during a series of citywide raids over the past month in which they confiscated 1.6 million pills disguised as general goods that had been flown in from India.

More than 70 per cent of the prescription or controlled drugs, valued at HK$41 million, were for treating erectile dysfunction and contained either sildenafil or tadalafil. Tablets for countering depression and prostate-related illnesses were also seized.

Senior Superintendent Rita Li Yim-ping, head of the Customs and Excise Department’s syndicate crimes investigation bureau, said on Monday that most of the drugs were generic, but about 60,000 were counterfeit Viagra or Cialis.

“The haul has an estimated market value of HK$55 million. It is the biggest-ever seizure of controlled pharmaceutical drugs in terms of value that Hong Kong customs has detected,” she said.

The suspects included a 27-year-old female tattoo artist accused of running the operations centre in Hung Hom, and two directors of a shell company with no record of running the business as stated. One of the directors was a 39-year-old woman from Uzbekistan and the other was a Russian man, 41.

Financial investigation revealed that about HK$11 million had been transferred into the bank account of the tattoo artist and HK$9 million was deposited into another account belonging to the shell company between January 2019 and September 2021, according to Li.

The senior superintendent said she believed the accounts were used to collect and launder the money received from overseas customers of the drugs, with funds arriving from countries including Bulgaria, Montenegro and Switzerland.

“But we don’t rule out the possibility that the two accounts were also used to launder other crime proceeds,” Li said.

She suggested the syndicate was in line to pocket at least half of the proceeds had it managed to sell all of the drugs that were seized.

“The samples have been taken to a government laboratory to see whether the ingredients used in the seized tablets are harmful,” she said. “We are still waiting for the results of the test.”

Li said the investigation revealed the imported drugs were delivered to a Hung Hom industrial unit which was used as a storage, packaging and distribution centre.

“The syndicate’s ringleader [who was not in Hong Kong] collected orders via overseas websites or apps and then instructed his Hong Kong members to send the pharmaceutical drugs to buyers worldwide,” the senior superintendent said.

Li said intelligence showed the drugs were destined for more than 20 countries around the world, such as Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Hong Kong customs began investigating the syndicate after officers at the airport’s cargo terminal intercepted parcels containing about 40,000 tablets on September 28. Some of the parcels were destined for Spain.

The female director of the shell company was detained on September 30 when she allegedly tried to mail some parcels containing the drugs from a post office in Hung Hom.

In a raid on the operations centre that day, customs officers arrested a 41-year-old woman from Hong Kong and confiscated about 1.4 million tablets.

Officers later raided the office of a logistics company in Sheung Wan and seized more than 100,000 tablets of the controlled drugs.

On October 5, a 34-year-old man was picked up in Tsing Yi, while the tattoo artist was arrested in North Point the following day.

Last Friday, customs officers detained the male director of the shell company at his Sai Kung home.

The five suspects, arrested for offences such as money laundering and attempting to export controlled drugs without a licence, have been released on bail pending further investigation.

Senior investigator Martin Ma Wing-hong, of customs’ financial investigation division, said the tattoo artist had a monthly income of between HK$30,000 and HK$40,000, lived in a rented flat and did not own any property.

“The amount of money [HK$11 million] she received is not commensurate with her income and background,” he said. “We don’t rule out the possibility that the funds were the proceeds of crime.”

He said the shell company did not have any record of running the business and that its bank account handled large sums of money, with some of those funds coming from European countries such as Switzerland and France.

“We suspect the [two directors] handled HK$9 million in crime proceeds through the account,” Ma said.

Officers from the syndicate crimes bureau are still investigating the length of time the gang was operating in Hong Kong.

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