The former manager of Canadia Bank’s credit card section has admitted to stealing $2.3 million from the bank’s accounts, the suspect’s lawyer said Tuesday, in what is one of the largest embezzlement schemes ever undertaken in Cambodia’s nascent banking industry.
The testimony from Yeth Sopheaktra, 30, to municipal court investigating Judge Suos Sam Ath contradicts police reports, which said that she had withdrawn money from accounts at the ABA and SBC banks before depositing the money at Canadia Bank.
According to those police reports, Ms. Sopheaktra allegedly masterminded a six-month-long scheme in which she and at least three accomplices used five fraudulent credit cards to withdraw up to $100,000 a week from ATMs in Phnom Penh.
“My client has confessed that she withdrew the cash from Canadia Bank accounts, not ABA and SBC,” said Neang Hai, the lawyer for Ms. Sopheaktra, who was questioned last week by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court where she is being charged with theft and extortion.
Exactly how so much money disappeared from Canadia without bank staff or its customers knowing has yet to be explained.
Canadia Bank CEO Michael Lor declined to comment on how $2.3 million was stolen from the bank before the theft was detected.
Police reports cite the complainant in the case as being lawyer Chong Eav Heng. Mr. Eav Heng also declined to comment on the case when contacted Tuesday.
Igor Zimarev, marketing officer for ABA, said that police had never informed executives at the bank about money going missing from customer accounts. He also denied outright that the security of ABA accounts was in any way compromised.
“I don’t know how this information could come out to start with, why ABA and SBC [were named] when in fact it is Canadia,” Mr. Zimarev said.
“Maybe [police] mixed up the abbreviations. What I can say is that we are safe and the information [in the police report] is wrong,” he said, adding that he had not actually seen the police reports, but that they had been widely reported in the media.
Sophal Tek, the head of cards and e-banking for SBC, also said that no money had been stolen from SBC accounts, adding that the confusion may have stemmed from the fact that third-party ATMs, including some belonging to SBC, were used in the scheme.
“What we understand is that [Canadia] bank’s staff created bank documents and applied for credit cards from that bank, and they used the credit cards at other banks. So the money is taken from other ATMs…to take money from Canadia accounts,” Mr. Tek said.
The inside job orchestrated by Ms. Sopheaktra amounted to possibly the largest fraud that Cambodia’s banking sector has ever seen, said Stephen Higgins, the former CEO of ANZ Royal Bank.
“It is by far the biggest fraud I have heard of in Cambodia, but most banks around the world have staff fraud of some description. It becomes the cost of doing business, but you hope it is not this big,” he said.
Mr. Higgins added that it was “extraordinary” if it is true that Ms. Sopheaktra was able to steal $2.3 million from five accounts using credit cards before being detected.
“She was smart enough to get around the controls, but dumb enough to think she wouldn’t eventually get caught,” he said.
Mr. Hai, the lawyer representing Ms. Sopheaktra, declined to say Tuesday whether his client, who left her position at the bank in March, withdrew the money from fraudulently created accounts, accounts created in her own name or linked the cards to accounts of existing, and wealthy, Canadia Bank clients.
Police arrested Ms. Sopheaktra along with Sun Saonin, 33, her boyfriend and former colleague, at the Canadia Bank building on Monivong Boulevard on September 30 after the two confessed to bank officials that they colluded in the embezzlement scheme.
A third suspect, Leng Suntry, has been charged as an accomplice in the case. Ms. Sopheaktra’s mother, Chak Kim Heng, 59, was also arrested Monday for taking part in the scheme, according to Phnom Penh penal police chief Eng Sophear.
“Police arrested Ms. Kim Heng following a court warrant and she was sent to court on Tuesday. The court has questioned her and detained her in pretrial detention,” Mr. Sophear said, declining to say what she is being charged with.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Yeth Sopheaktra was a manager in Canadia Bank’s credit department. She was a manager in the bank’s credit card department.