Hong Kong TV chef among 10 arrested over $30.8m stock market con

Wong Wing-chee has been arrested on suspicion of money laundering.
PHOTO: May Tse

A celebrity chef and five other senior executives of Hong Kong-listed companies have been arrested in an unprecedented joint operation by local and Singapore authorities targeting a HK$176 million (S$30.8 million) stock market scam involving hundreds of victims.

A police source said television star Wong Wing-chee, 62, was among the 10 people detained on Wednesday (Dec 15) for alleged money laundering in connection with "ramp and dump" investment fraud - and that he alone was accused of pocketing HK$48 million.

Popularly known as "Chee Gor" or "Brother Chee", Wong regularly appears on cooking programmes in Hong Kong and was formerly CEO of restaurants operator Dragon King Group Holdings.

Its current chief executive, a 48-year-old man, was among the eight men and one woman aged between 25 and 62 who were arrested in Hong Kong. In Singapore, a woman believed to be a puppet investor was detained with authorities freezing HK$25 million of her assets.

Senior Inspector Leung Ka-yeung, of Hong Kong police's financial intelligence and investigation bureau, said detectives and stock regulators in both cities had joined forces to break a cross-border syndicate tied to money laundering and manipulating share trading.

"The scammers allegedly colluded with six senior executives of three listed companies in Hong Kong to engage in the ramp-and-dump scams," he said.

"They arranged some puppet investors to snap up the companies' shares to push up their stock prices while at the same time offering 'insider tips' on social media platforms to induce victims to buy the stocks at high prices."

Leung said the companies' share prices shot up this year by two to six times before fraudsters offloaded their stock to pocket HK$176 million in profit.

"After selling their stock, the scammers then deposited the money into bank accounts owned by shell companies or the puppet investors. Very quickly the proceeds were transferred to mainland China," he said. "We are still investigating the whereabouts of the proceeds."

During the operation, police and Hong Kong's Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) staff searched 47 premises and froze 39 bank accounts of those arrested containing a total of HK$48 million, seizing about HK$1.7 million.

The source said the ringleader of the syndicate had fled Hong Kong.

He added that Wong was accused of making HK$48 million in profit from the alleged scam. Police froze about HK$5 million in his bank accounts during the operation.

The Securities and Futures Commission's Thomas Allan Atkinson (left) and Michael Duignan (right) hold a press conference on the operation. PHOTO: Dickson Lee

Wong quit as CEO of Dragon King Group Holdings in July, while the syndicate allegedly executed the ramp-and-dump scam over the first two quarters of this year.

"Wong was accused of laundering HK$86 million through his accounts between February and July," the source said.

He said the four remaining senior executives were the people in charge of the other two listed companies.

The source added: "The female suspect picked up in Hong Kong is the core member of the ramp-and-dump syndicate and also the girlfriend of the alleged ringleader who is on the run."

The other two male suspects are the holders of stooge bank accounts used to collect illegal proceeds and launder the funds.

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Wong has hosted food programmes such as TVB's Chee Gor's Tips and Admiral's Feast. He is known for his adventurous cooking style, once combining crocodile meat from Singapore with Alaskan king crab.

Michael Duignan, senior director of SFC's enforcement division, said hundreds of people had fallen victim to the investment scams but warned it would be very difficult for them to get their money back.

A ramp-and-dump scam is a form of stock market manipulation. Fraudsters use various means to "ramp" up the share price of a listed company and then induce investors via social media platforms to purchase the shares which they "dump" at an artificially high price. Hapless victims are left suffering serious losses as the prices collapse.

Last year, police handled 544 reports of online investment fraud worth HK$266.3 million, triple the number of cases in 2019, when 167 cases incurred total losses of HK$48.6 million. There were 338 reports in 2018 involving HK$278.1 million.

Under the Securities and Futures Ordinance, those guilty of engaging in manipulative stock market activities or transactions face maximum penalties of 10 years in prison, and a fine of up to HK$10 million.

The punishments for money laundering include a HK$5 million fine and 14 years in prison.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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