I’m of an age when the people I admired in my youth were known as “role models” – for me, people like Olivia Newton-John and Indira Gandhi (I had wide-ranging interests and confused professional ambitions – should I top the pops or run the country?). Nowadays such people are known as “influencers” – and they can use their power for evil as well as good (not to mention shifting shedloads of “merch”).
I am sure you have all been breathlessly following the case of Tara Hanlon. A recruitment consultant, she found that her addiction to looking like influencer Kim Kardashian – through the regular application of pricy plastic surgery – needed more cash input, and money laundering seemed an easy option. But on 3 October 2020 she was arrested at Heathrow, trying to board a flight to Dubai with five suitcases containing £1.9 million cash, vacuum-packed and covered in ground coffee to hide the smell from sniffer dogs. She eventually pleaded guilty to that, and to three earlier successful cash-smuggling trips – carrying £1.4 million on 14 July 2020, £1.1 million on 10 August 2020 and £1 million on 31 August 2020. In text messages to friends, she had bragged about the benefits of being a money launderer, which gave her a “perfect life, a few days in the sun and a few at home” and paid her £3,000 per trip: “Three big ones… with this wage and the next my debts go bye.” Instead, she’s off to clink for 34 months. T_T, as the youngsters would have it.
On an altogether more ambitious scale, we now hear about the laundering activities of Hushpuppi. Come now, you are surely among the 2.5 million followers of this Nigerian Instagram influencer, born Ramon Abbas but now preferring to be known as the “Billionaire Gucci Master”. His followers wait on tenterhooks for photos of his lavish purchases – cars, watches, designer clothes, private jets, etc. But in June 2020 he was arrested in – wait for it – Dubai. Over a period of eighteen months, according to court documents, AbbasGucciPuppi and others defrauded people and institutions of large amounts of money and then laundered it. On 20 April 2021 he pleaded guilty to various thefts, including US$14.7 million from a bank in Malta (believed to be the Bank of Valletta) and US$1.1 million from someone who wanted to fund a new children’s school in Qatar. Although you might expect money launderers to try to fly under the radar, to blend in, it seems that sometimes bling is the way to go: according to the statement from the US Attorney’s Office, “his celebrity status and ability to make connections seeped into legitimate organizations and led to several spin-off schemes in the US and abroad”. And then some of AbbasGucciPuppi’s illicit earnings were hidden in plain sight: “Approximately $230,000 of the stolen funds allegedly were used to purchase a Richard Mille RM11-03 watch, which was hand delivered to Abbas in Dubai and subsequently appeared in Hushpuppi’s social media posts.” Ever modest about his achievements, AbbasGucciPuppi wrote alongside the photo: “God’s time is the best, especially when you checking it from a $150,000 Richard Mille watch (pats myself on the back).” In case he’s wondering, there are 10,512,000 minutes in the 20-year sentence he’s being predicted.