When Hagoda Gamage Shalika Perera, a small Sri Lankan businesswoman,
got a deposit of $20 million in her account last month, she said the
funds were expected but had no idea they were stolen from Bangladesh's
central bank in one of the largest cyber heists in history.
Unknown hackers breached Bangladesh Bank's systems between February 4
and February 5 and tried to steal nearly $1 billion from its account at
the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Many of the payments were blocked. But $20 million made its way to
Perera's Shalika Foundation before the transfer was reversed. Bangladesh
central bank officers said they acted after a routing bank, Deutsche
Bank, sought clarification on the transfer because hackers misspelled
the company's name as "Fundation."
Another $81 million was routed to accounts in the Philippines, and diverted to casinos there, where the trail runs out.
The Philippines Senate is holding hearings in the case, but until now, few details had emerged on the Sri Lanka link.
In her first public comments on the case, Perera, a struggling
businesswoman who heads Shalika, told Reuters she expected $20 million
to come from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) to help
fund a power plant and other projects in Sri Lanka. She said she had no
direct dealing with JICA, but the deal was arranged by an acquaintance
who she met in Sri Lanka but had connections in Japan.
Shalika was set up in October 2014 and says in its registration
documents that it constructs low-cost houses and provides other social
Reuters was unable to independently confirm Perera's account or to
reach the acquaintance she named, via the email and phone numbers she
Jica, a Japanese government agency that provides official development
assistance, said it has no ties with Shalika Foundation, including
through any intermediaries.
"We have had no exchange with them, and that includes such areas as loans and grants," Jica spokesman Naoyuki Nemoto said.
The Sri Lankan police's criminal investigation division declined to comment because the probe is ongoing. "GENUINE PEOPLE"
"We are very genuine people. We are not doing any illegal things,"
said Perera, speaking in English and Sinhalese in an interview in
Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. The 36-year-old was accompanied by her
husband, Ramanayaka Arachchige Don Pradeep Rohitha Dhamkin, also a
director in her company.
Perera said she now thinks the acquaintance was either a victim of
the hackers or in league with them, and she was hoodwinked into becoming
a part of their scheme.
She showed Reuters a copy of an inward remittance advisory from the
SWIFT bank messaging system to put the $20 million in her company's
account. The remitting entity was shown as a Bangladesh government
electricity agency that had taken a loan from Jica in 2010 to fund an
The head of the Bangladesh government agency, the Bangladesh Rural
Electrification Board, said it was "ridiculous" to think that the money
could have come from them.
"Maybe they used this government organisation's name to make it believable," said Brigadier General Moin Uddin, the agency head.
Police have questioned Perera's acquaintance, according to an
investigation report filed in the Colombo Magistrate's Court on
Thursday. The man told authorities that a Japanese middleman had helped
arrange the funding, according to the report.
The report provided the names of Perera's acquaintance whom Reuters
has been unable to locate and the Japanese middleman. Reached by phone,
the middleman said he was travelling and unable to provide immediate
The court has ordered a travel ban on Perera, her husband, the
acquaintance and four other people listed as directors of her company.
Perera maintains she is innocent and describes the government's move as "an injustice". STRUGGLING BUSINESSWOMAN
Perera is, by her own admission, struggling. She said she has four
other enterprises, including a publishing firm, an auto parts company, a
construction company and a catering firm.
In 2014, losses from her publishing firm were so bad that she was
forced to sell her computers. She said she now does her business from
Internet cafes, and held meetings with potential investors at Pizza Hut
and other restaurants.
In early February, Perera said her acquaintance, who had been helping
her for more than a year to meet investors, told her to expect $20
million from JICA. Under their agreement, the payment would be split,
between her power plant project and a housing project controlled by her
acquaintance, she said.
According to a Sri Lankan police investigation report seen by Reuters
last week, Perera told her bank, a Colombo branch of Pan Asia Bank,
that the company expected to receive $20 million from a Japanese fund.
A Pan Asia Bank official declined to comment, citing the investigation.
Perera said she had not seen the report, which was submitted to the magistrate's court last week.
According to the report, bank officials said Perera left instructions
with them to transfer $7.72 million to her own personal account and
$11.12 million to an account controlled by her acquaintance once the
transaction had cleared.
Perera confirmed she had given the instructions to the bank, and said
they reflected the money earmarked for the two projects and
commissions. The rest was to be used for taxes, she said.
The money was remitted by the Pan Asia Bank to Shalika Foundation's
account on February 4, but the bank refused to release the funds as the
amount was unusually large and sought further verification, according to
last week's police report.
On February 9, Perera was told by her bank that the Bangladesh
central bank had asked for the transaction to be reversed, according to