By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh.
How do you feel when you see a beggar on the street, strewn across the pavement as you walk by?
Dismayed and dejected?
Guilty and empathetic?
How about if you found out they were actually fake beggars – professional beggars simply acting out a role to intentionally deceive good people of their money?
It’s flabbergasting to say the least, but this is the situation that unfolded last week across the streets of Melbourne’s CBD: tourists allegedly part of a larger syndicate of fake beggars, attempting to get money and send it overseas.
Elderly Chinese People allegedly Flown to Melbourne on Tourist Visas to Pretend to be Homeless
On 2 July 2019, police charged seven people over an alleged “professional begging” operation, which saw elderly Chinese people flown to Melbourne on tourist visas and pretend to be homeless so they could dupe Melburnians out of their cash.
The tourists, thought to be part of a larger operation, targeted passers-by in the CBD, “deceiving the good people of Melbourne”.
Victoria Police said they arrested three women aged 65, 67 and 71, and two men aged 68 and 72.
They were charged with begging and possessing property suspected of being the proceeds of crime after being arrested with about $1,000 cash on the city streets.
Officers Discover Fake Beggars had Access to Shared Housing in CBD
According to acting Inspector Giovanni Travaglini, those charged were falsely claiming to be homeless, however it was later determined they had access to shared housing in the CBD.
Acting Inspector Travaglini confirmed the alleged offenders were in Australia on tourist visas, and several of them had recently made transfers of Australian dollars into Chinese yuan.
He said while all begging in Victoria is illegal, the false claims of homelessness were “deceitful” and concerning.
“They’re not vulnerable people. They’ve got access to housing and they’re just taking advantage and deceiving the good people of Melbourne,” Acting Inspector Travaglini said.
“We obviously seized an amount of money and also located foreign exchange receipts which indicated that a lot of the money that the good people of Melbourne were giving is basically being exchanged for Chinese currency.”
He also made clear that while the people of Melbourne are a generous bunch, there is a zero tolerance to that sort of behaviour.
Victoria Police said it was working with the Australian Border Force, Australian Federal Police, the City of Melbourne and the Salvation Army to investigate the issue.
Meanwhile, a video published on Reddit two weeks ago appeared to reveal an organised syndicate of fake beggars in the CBD – one of the women featuring in the video among the group charged this week.
Word of the presence of professional beggars in Australia had also been circulating on the Chinese social media platform WeChat.
Melbourne Lord Mayor “Gobsmacked” by Prepared Begging
Speaking of the incident, Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, Sally Capp, said she was “gobsmacked” by the thought that beggars were being flown in all the way from China to collect money amongst the city streets.
“I think it’s clear now that they are part of an organised system but that many of those people are really quite vulnerable themselves and they’ve been pulled into this situation,” she said.
“We face this complexity of people at their most vulnerable but needing to be able to take strong action and the right action to actually make a difference.”
Ms Capp was hopeful the operation would underscore the illegality of begging and discourage well-intentioned people from giving money to beggars.
“It’s a really hard message to get out to caring Melburnians to say, ‘please do not give to beggars’”, she said.
The City of Melbourne advised in a tweet that those concerned about homeless people to direct them to specialised support services rather than offering them money.
Salvation Army Major Brendan Nottle “Physically Sick” Upon Seeing Tourists Trying to Dupe Australians
Speaking alongside police, Salvation Army Major Brendan Nottle, speaking alongside police, said he felt “physically sick” when he saw tourists trying to dupe Australians.
He said the investigation was triggered when police brought a number of aged Chinese people who had been begging to the Salvation Army.
“The sight of those people actually made me feel physically sick … just the appearance of it seemed really wrong and we were deeply concerned about their welfare,” he said.
“How could you make enough money from begging that would justify an air fare and accommodation and so forth?
“We’re really confused by the story but at the same time, just feeling really uneasy about seeing elderly people on the streets begging.
It turns out that the incident is not the first time Melbourne’s CBD has fallen victim to professional begging.
In 2015, a study by the Salvation Army found a small number of professional beggars were earning up to $400 a day.
They were also intimidating women and international tourists.
In NSW, dealing with property suspected of being proceeds of crime is an offence under section 193C Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).
Where the value exceeds $5,000, the maximum penalty in the Local Court is up to 2-years imprisonment or $11,000 fine.
Where the value is $5,000 or under, the maximum penalty in the Local Court is up to 2-years imprisonment and/or $5,500 fine.
Where the value $2,000 or under, the maximum penalty in the Local Court is up to 2-years imprisonment and/or $2,200 fine.
However, if dealt with in the District Court, the maximum penalty is up to 5-years imprisonment if the value of the property is $100,00 or more.
If the value of the property is under $100,000 and it’s dealt with in the District Court, the maximum penalty is 3-years imprisonment.
This offence is considered an indictable offence, which means it can be dealt with to finality either in the Local Court or the District Court.
In order to be guilty of this offence, the prosecution is required to first prove each of the following elements of this crime beyond reasonable doubt in court:
- That the accused person ‘dealt with’ property, in the sense he/she either received, possessed, tried to hide or dispose of property; and
- The accused person did this in circumstances where there are ‘reasonable grounds to suspect’ that the property was the proceeds of a crime.
There is no requirement to prove that the property was in fact the proceeds of a crime.
What is ‘reasonable grounds to suspect’? The case of R v Rondo (2001) 126 A Crim R 562 outlines that ‘reasonable suspicion’ involves less than a reasonable belief but more than a possibility.
It also says that, “a reason to suspect that a fact exists is more than a reason to consider or look into the possibility of its existence.”
The legislation assists the court in determining whether there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the property is proceeds of crime if any one or more of the following circumstances exist:
- If the accused person argues that the dealing was done on behalf of or at the request of someone else but fails to provide information to allow that other person to be identified and located.
- The value of the property in the court’s opinion is grossly out of proportion to the accused person’s income and expenses over a reasonable period within which the dealing of the property occurred.
- The dealing involves the use of one or more accounts held with an authorised deposit-taking institution in false name(s).
- The dealing of the property involved numerous transaction structured or arranged in a way to avoid the reporting requirements.
Dealing with property here includes engaging directly or indirectly in a transaction which includes making or receiving a gift (section 193A Crimes Act 1900 (NSW)).
The term ‘proceeds of crime’ includes any property that’s substantially derived or realised, whether directly or indirectly, by any person from the commission of a serious offence. A serious offence here includes an indictable offence.
A common defence to this offence is if you can prove on the balance of probabilities to the court that you did not hold ‘reasonable grounds to suspect’ that the property was substantially derived from the commission of a serious offence, or you didn’t deal with the property, or you acted under a necessity or duress.
Click here for more details on charges and penalties for fraud offences in NSW.
Contact our Sydney criminal defence lawyers today for a free appointment if you have further questions surrounding this topic. our office is available 24/7 on (02) 8606 2218.