Investors are missing millions after Union Standard collapsed. But an offshore company structure is complicating investigations

A flashy Australian finance company that sponsored the English football team Sheffield United is under intense scrutiny by liquidators over hundreds of millions of dollars in funds investors claim they are owed.

Next week, key players in the failed foreign exchange broker Union Standard International Group will be examined under oath in the Federal Court as part of the liquidation.

One of the areas under examination could be the identity of a director of the Australian business and the major beneficial owner of its parent company, a mysterious man from Myanmar that according to liquidators staff said they had never met in person.

Investors claim they are owed a staggering amount — $360 million — and liquidators with the firm BRI Ferrier estimate the figure could eventually reach over half a billion dollars.

According to investors, agents used the fact that Union Standard International Group was regulated in Australia in their business pitch to potential clients in China and Taiwan.

Its collapse over two years ago was devastating for many with some losing their life savings.

Corporate regulator ASIC canceled its financial services license in September 2020 after it went into administration, but the true extent of the operation is still being unraveled.

Now, 7.30 can reveal new details about how Union Standard registered a shell company in the Samoan capital of Apia in 2014 that ultimately owned the Australian operation and continues to operate.

7.30 has obtained leaked documents from the law firm Mossack Fonseca detailing the menu of jurisdictions in which it offered to incorporate a company.

Tax havens on offer include Panama, Seychelles, Bahamas, British Anguilla and Samoa.

Mossack Fonseca was central to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ 2016 Panama Papers investigation, which highlighted how the law firm set up a shell companies to hide the wealth of individuals and global corporations.

One of the leaked documents from 2014 is a share certificate for Union Standard Group International Holdings Limited showing the entire company’s capital owned by a single beneficiary from Taiwan.

It’s believed the beneficiary has since changed.

The leaked documents come from a database of more than 11 million documents given to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

‘Ultimate secrecy’

Jason Ward, founder of the Center for International Corporate Tax Accountability and Research, said Samoa was just one of half a dozen tax havens offered to clients of Mossack Fonseca.

“Samoa is, sadly, one of many tax havens … clearly one that serves the purpose of offering ultimate secrecy,” he told 7.30.

“So, once you get to Samoa the trail ends in terms of determining where the ownership goes from there.”

Man in a brown suit wearing glasses.
Jason Ward is the founder of the Center for International Corporate Tax Accountability and Research.(ABC News)

Myanmar man Soe Hein Minn is a director of the Australian business, however, according to a 2020 report liquidators have serious doubts about his true identity.

Liquidators said Mr. Soe also controlled the offshore company based in Samoa, which was the shareholder of the Australian operation and the major beneficial owner.

In their report to creditors, they said they were so concerned that they hired a private investigation firm to track Mr. Soe to his stated address.

7.30 has obtained exclusive pictures of what the investigator found — a rundown complex in the capital Yangon where no one has heard of him.

A brick apartment building in Myanmar with a ute outside.
The building of Mr. Soe’s listed address in Myanmar.(Supplied)

The photos raise further suspicions that the owner of a lucrative global company was unlikely to live here.

The liquidators also reported that the external investigator has raised concerns that the key identity documentation for Mr. Soe may not be genuine.

Liquidators said none of the Australian Directors or management have confirmed that they have met Mr. Soe in person.

They said staff have participated in virtual meetings with him, but they don’t remember whether it was that party that participated in the meetings, or if he did, it appeared a person claiming to be Mr. Soe participated via audio only.

Rural location in Myanmar with huts.
Liquidators say an external investigator has raised concerns key identity documentation for Mr. Soe may not be genuine.(Supplied)

Mr Ward said Myanmar would be the perfect jurisdiction to create a false identity.

“It is incredibly hard to go through public records, incredibly hard to track individuals down and very easy to forge documents,” he said.

7.30 made extensive efforts to reach Mr. Soe to offer him an interview or provide a statement, including contacting him through Union Standard’s UK and Samoan operations, but we received no response.

On USG’s website in the United Kingdom where it operates independently under a different company, a post claims Mr. Soe is a real person and a bona fide individual.

Tracking down the investments

Liquidators Peter Krejci and Andrew Cummins of the firm BRI Ferrier said that they had received claims from a large number of creditors where their alleged investment does not appear to be accurately recorded.

“Many clients made their investment by way of overseas money processors or directly to the agents. USG’s Australian records do not appear to accurately disclose these investments and the overseas money processors have largely refused to respond to our queries,” they said in a statement.

In Federal Court proceedings, ASIC alleged that USGFX provided financial services including trading to clients in China, allegedly placing them at risk of breaching Chinese law.

London-based Opal Yang has been on a mission to try and track down money on behalf of creditors.

Chinese woman with brown hair wearing a black jacket.
Opal Yang has been advising investors about how to try and recover the huge sums of money they have lost.(ABC News)

“I come across a lot of clients, they are highly educated and they are very experienced investors. They actually did a lot of due diligence in terms of this investment and so on paper, it looks very legit,” she said.

But there were warning signs — in 2017, staff in the Shanghai office were held hostage by angry investors who had lost money.

‘We thought our money was being protected’

Melbourne resident Jean Fan was not involved in those scenes. She is one of a group of nearly 500 investors and supporters who communicate in a private group chat on social media about how to pursue the location of the funds.

“Everyone wants to find out where the money went, why this is happening; we thought our money was being protected,” she said.

She said she has made a claim for about $800,000 lost through the Australian company.

“It’s just really stressful, especially in the first half year I couldn’t sleep at all, I had to do counseling … it was just, this is a lot of money,” she said.

Ms. Fan was living in Shanghai when she was approached by a friend to invest in a product known as U-Plus, which promised interest of over 9 percent each year.

Asian woman wearing purple jacket with black glasses.
Jean Fan lost approximately $800,000 through Union Standard.(ABC News: Andrew Altree-Williams)

The promotional material shows the company is regulated by ASIC and investors’ money would be kept safely in Commonwealth Bank accounts.

But in their report to creditors, liquidators alleged that the money held in trust for investors at the time of their appointment totaled $6 million, a fraction of what investors said they were owed.

“They have completely destroyed everyone’s confidence in investing in Australia,” Ms Fan said.

“The only reason why they initially invested in this product is because of the reputation they had in this industry and now it’s all destroyed because when things go down, no one’s there for us.”

Zhou Decai, a resident of China, lost his life savings of half a million dollars when he was introduced to the investment by a former classmate.

“I was devastated and couldn’t get over it for a long time. It had a significant impact on my life and my family’s life. It’s more than half of my total assets,” he said.

Ms. Yang said that many investors had to remortgage their homes due to the losses.

“So far, there’s not much help. So they are really desperate,” she said.

ASIC Deputy Chair Sarah Court said that ASIC had canceled the financial services license of USG.

She said ASIC was seeking court orders that USG refund its clients their net deposits.

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