The $12.5 billion fraud that has shocked Vietnam

Business

Retired nurse Nga put her life savings into a bond at Vietnam’s SCB bank but now cannot access her money after being caught up with tens of thousands in a multimillion-dollar scam that has shocked the nation.
Property tycoon Truong, My Lan is now facing a trial in the country’s most significant fraud case, accused of embezzling $12.5 billion by investigators after being arrested in a national corruption crackdown analysts say has hit the economy and unsettled foreign investors.
Lan, chair of significant developer Van Thinh Phat, is said to have tricked the cash from Saigon Commercial Bank (SCB) for years, leaving unsuspecting investors out of pocket and leading hundreds to stage rare protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Nga — a pseudonym to protect her identity — is among the 42,000 victims of the Van Thinh Phat scandal identified by police.
“My children urged me to spend the money to travel, but I did not. I put my whole life savings there,” said the 67-year-old Hanoi resident, showing AFP the bond certificates worth around $120,000 issued by SCB.
“I planned to use the money to maintain our house… to help my kids.”
Police say those caught up in the scam are all SCB bondholders who cannot withdraw their money and have not received interest or principal payments since Lan’s arrest in October 2022.
Lan, married to a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, is accused of setting up fake loan applications to withdraw money from SCB, in which she owned a 90 percent stake.
Between February 2019 and September 2022, her driver transported over $4.4 billion in cash from SCB’s headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City to her nearby home and Van Thinh Phat’s head office.
Her alleged asset appropriation equals around three percent of Vietnam’s 2022 GDP.
– ‘Tip of the iceberg’ –
Despite a wave of high-profile arrests under the anti-corruption drive, the scandal’s size has shocked the country, said Linh Nguyen, lead analyst for consultancy Vietnam at Control Risks.
“Now it’s raised the question: are there any other cases of a similar scale out there?” she told AFP.
“If one businesswoman with one company and one bank could leverage such huge capital from the economy, how about in other banks and companies?”
Banking expert Bui Kien Thanh also warned the scandal might be “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“In my view… many, many other banks are doing the same thing, although maybe to a lesser extent,” he said.
Eighty-five others will face trial alongside Lan, including former central bankers, ex-SCB executives, and former government officials.
One former employee at the State Bank of Vietnam — the central bank — is accused of accepting $5.2 million in bribes to conceal SCB’s violations and poor financial situation.
Other top business leaders targeted in the anti-corruption drive — and accused of massive fraud — include Truong Quy Thanh, the head of soft drink giant Tan Hiep Phat Group.
He is to be prosecuted along with his two daughters for allegedly appropriating $31.5 million.
Do Anh Dung, chairman of developer Tan Hoang Minh Group, will also face trial for illegally acquiring $355 million in a bond sale to more than 6,500 investors.
– Economic impact –
The anti-graft drive has even dealt a blow to Vietnam’s economy, Luc Can, chief economist at state-owned bank BIDV, said during a recent panel discussion.
Last year, the government disbursed just 65 percent of its annual target for public investment capital, he said.
With many fearful of being caught up in the crackdown, everyday business and state apparatus transactions have slowed.
The economy grew just over five percent in 2023, missing the government’s 6.5 percent target.
Meanwhile, the price of gold — a haven in times of turmoil and uncertainty — hit a record high in the country last month, surpassing global rates by a third.
Linh of Control Risks said the trend showed ordinary Vietnamese feel it is “safer to keep money under your pillow or in gold bars in your safe box at home.”
She added that some foreign investors had also been spooked, even as they have broadly praised what they see as the campaign’s aim to improve the rule of law.
“It doesn’t mean that (foreign investors are) going to run away or shift their interests into other countries,” Linh said.
“It might just be they’re delaying… until everything settles down.”
For Nga, who has logged her case with police, justice cannot come soon enough.
“Those that committed these crimes must be duly punished,” she said.
“I trust and hope to get back my money as I did nothing bad to anyone.”

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