Brian Sims

Specialist CPS team secures conviction in wake of UK’s largest Bitcoin seizure

A FORMER takeaway worker has been convicted of laundering the proceeds, which saw the individual involved rise from living above a Chinese restaurant to residing in a multimillion-pound property located in an affluent area of North London. On 20 March at Southwark Crown Court, Jian Wen, aged 42, was found guilty of an offence relating to money laundering.

A Metropolitan Police Service investigation resulted in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) seizure of Bitcoin wallets from Wen harbouring an initial estimated value in excess of £2 billion. At the hearing, prosecutors informed Southwark Crown Court that the sheer scale of the seized Bitcoin, the lack of any legitimate evidence for how it was acquired and its connection to a massive investment fraud in China all indicated that it was criminal property.

The original fraud and acquisition of the Bitcoin was undertaken by another suspect who’s yet to be arrested and brought before the court. On behalf of the international fraudster, Wen was involved in converting significant amounts of Bitcoin into cash and other expensive assets.

Prior to working for her ‘employer’, Wen lived a modest lifestyle in Leeds, with declared earnings in 2015 and 2016 of just £12,800 and £5,979 respectively. Her fortune changed significantly when she met the fellow Chinese national who was the source of the Bitcoin.

In 2017, they moved into a six-bedroom property in London at a rental cost of over £17,000 each month. The two women presented themselves as successfully operating an international jewellery business, with Wen serving as the English-speaking – and apparently legitimate – front person for her employer.

Wen was later joined by her young son, who moved from China to attend a private school in the UK, in turn benefiting from her newly affluent lifestyle. Wen later stated that she had been gifted 3,000 Bitcoin, then valued at approximately £15 million, by her employer.

Property purchasing

Between late 2017 and the later stages of 2018, Wen made efforts to purchase properties in London valued at £4.5 million, £23.5 million and £12.5 million. She was hampered by difficulties converting sufficient Bitcoin into Sterling and by ‘know your customer-style questions asked of her under anti-money laundering regulations. When challenged about the source of the proposed funding for the property purchases, Wen claimed the funds emanated from legitimate sources including Bitcoin mining, a claim that was ultimately not accepted by those whom she instructed to assist with the sale.

Between 2017 and 2019, Wen also travelled abroad extensively, throughout Europe and elsewhere, largely enabling the conversion of large amounts of Bitcoin into more tangible assets.

A receipt addressed to Wen, for example, showed jewellery worth tens of thousands of pounds had been purchased in Zurich. In 2019, she travelled to Dubai, arranging to view a number of properties for sale. In October and November of that year, Wen went on to purchase two properties in Dubai. Their value in total amounted to more than £500,000.

Throughout the course of the investigation process and subsequent trial, Wen denied knowing that any of the Bitcoin was derived from criminality and had no suspicions about its scale.

The CPS’ Proceeds of Crime Division used its civil powers to obtain a Property Freezing Order from the High Court against Wen while it undertakes a non-conviction-based civil recovery investigation. That investigation could result in the forfeiture of the seized Bitcoin regardless of whether Wen or the other suspect are convicted.

Scale of criminal proceeds

Andrew Penhale, Chief Crown Prosecutor, said: “Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are increasingly being used by organised criminals to disguise and transfer assets such that fraudsters may enjoy the benefits of their criminal conduct. This case, involving as it does the largest cryptocurrency seizure in the UK, illustrates the scale of criminal proceeds available to those fraudsters.”

Penhale continued: “Although the original fraudster remains at large, the Metropolitan Police Service and the CPS have successfully secured a money laundering conviction against Jian Wen, an individual employed to launder criminal proceeds. Through criminal confiscation and civil proceedings, the CPS will now work to ensure that the criminal assets remain beyond the fraudsters’ reach.”

Further, Penhale observed: “The CPS is committed to working closely with law enforcement and investigatory authorities in order to bring to justice those individuals and companies who engage in laundering criminal proceeds through the means of cryptocurrency.”

Adrian Foster, head of the CPS Proceeds of Crime Division, added: “The CPS has used the full range of its criminal and non-conviction based civil asset recovery powers to, firstly, freeze and then subsequently look to seize the very large quantity of cryptocurrency and other assets used by Wen and her ‘employer’ to fund their extravagant lifestyle. We’ve worked with the police to obtain freezing orders preserving all the seized cryptocurrency, while a CPS-led civil recovery investigation is running to establish that the frozen cryptocurrency is criminal property and also seek its forfeiture.”

Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Prins of the Metropolitan Police Service, whose team led the investigation, explained: “Thanks to the hard work and perseverance of highly skilled detectives in the Metropolitan Police Service, we’ve been able to disrupt a sophisticated economic crime operation, the sheer scale of which demonstrates how international criminals seek to exploit cryptocurrency online.” Prins continued: “Our team has helped to secure justice by persevering to trace this Bitcoin and identify the criminality to which it’s linked. The verdict and lengthy five-year investigation demonstrates that we’ll leave no stone unturned in our pursuit of criminals who look to enjoy the proceeds of illicit funds, no matter how complex the case.”

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