Woman cleared of being 'money mule'

Prosecution failed to show funds received from her Facebook 'boyfriend' were stolen: Judge

A 52-year-old woman who was snared by a Facebook "boyfriend" into receiving money that was allegedly stolen was cleared of receiving it and laundering the proceeds, after a three-day trial in the State Courts.

District Judge Kessler Soh acquitted Ms Babara Seet earlier this month without her defence being called, after the prosecution failed to show a prima facie case that the monies were stolen.

Ms Seet had received a Facebook message from a person named Hubert Donald Keeton in July 2013 and started a relationship via correspondence when he told her he was going to relocate to Singapore with his eight-year-old son.

Two months later, he asked her if she could accept US$320,000, equivalent to about S$404,500 at the time, that he wanted to remit to her bank account here. He claimed the money was for a property agent to buy a condo unit in Singapore.

Ms Seet agreed, as she wanted to help him relocate so that they could continue their relationship.

Ms Seet had received a Facebook message from a person named Hubert Donald Keeton in July 2013 and started a relationship via correspondence when he told her he was going to relocate to Singapore with his eight-year-old son. Two months later, he asked her if she could accept US$320,000 that he wanted to remit to her bank account here. He claimed the money was for a property agent to buy a condo unit in Singapore.

She then withdrew $400,000 as instructed by Keeton, explaining to the bank officer it was being withdrawn for the purchase of a $1.5 million condominium unit.

As arranged, she handed over the cash to a person named Juliana at a coffee shop in Circular Road. On a second occasion, she withdrew a further $7,000 as requested by Keeton, which she transferred to a person named Sabrina Shawali in Malaysia.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Leong Weng Tat, in his submissions, said a bank based in Lebanon had transferred the sums to Ms Seet's account after it received instructions through e-mail purportedly in the name of Fahed Rafik Hariri. He was a customer of the bank but these instructions were later found to be fraudulent.

The sums were therefore "stolen property" within the meaning of Section 410 of the Penal Code.

Ms Seet's action in withdrawing the sums meant she had benefited from criminal conduct and was punishable under the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act, added the prosecution.

But defence counsel Peter Ong Lip Cheng argued Ms Seet had no reason to believe the money transferred to her account was stolen property, given the circumstances of her link with Keeton.

She did not benefit from criminal conduct by withdrawing and transferring the monies as she had no knowledge of Keeton's illicit activities when instructed to do so.

Mr Ong suggested, among other things, that it was not proven that Mr Hariri existed as his identity was not verified and neither was the e-mail address.

The court also did not allow a key statement by Mr Hariri in his absence to be admitted after it was challenged by Mr Ong as it was not signed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2016, with the headline 'Woman cleared of being 'money mule''. Print Edition | Subscribe