Monday, May 25, 2009

Hunt for New Zealand pair may lead to Hong Kong

From running a gas station to just plain running: A New Zealand couple who dropped out of sight after a bank error gave them a multimillion-dollar line of credit was being sought in Hong Kong, police said Friday.

An international search was under way for the man and his girlfriend, who disappeared two days after a bank mistakenly handed them a credit line of 10 million New Zealand dollars ($6.1 million) — 100 times their approved limit of NZ$100,000 ($61,000).

An account holder then tried to transfer about $4 million out of the account, but the bank was able to recover $1.7 million, the bank said. The statement did not specify how it got the money back.

"Westpac is continuing to vigorously pursue the outstanding amount" of $2.3 million, the bank said.

A New Zealand woman told the TV3 network that the two being sought by police were her daughter, Kara Yang, and boyfriend Leo Gao, who were traveling with Yang's 7-year-old daughter, Leena.

Sue Hurring said that her daughter was "honest" and issued a plea for her to turn herself in.

"Just come home now," Hurring told the network. "It will be OK."

The New Zealand Press Association also reported the names of the couple, although neither police nor the bank have identified the pair.

Detective Senior Sgt. David Harvey said Interpol was investigating in Hong Kong and was also working with officials in Beijing. The New Zealand Herald quoted unnamed police as saying the two were believed to be in Hong Kong.

Westpac said the couple, who ran a gas station in the North Island city of Rotorua — a favorite tourist destination known for its scenery, sparkling lakes and geysers — had the equivalent of a $61,000 credit limit. In formalizing the couple's limit, the bank accidentally opened a line of credit for $6.1 million.

Initial details from the bank indicated that money had actually been deposited into their account.

Companies Office records list Gao and another person as owners of the gas station, which police said filed for bankruptcy protection this month.

Westpac says it considers the money to have been stolen but conceded it was human error at the bank that made the couple accidental millionaires.

Banking Ombudsman Liz Brown said it is generally considered a criminal offense for people to spend money accidentally deposited into a bank account if they are aware that the cash is not theirs.

In her 15 years as banking Ombudsman, Brown said she had been involved in 10 to 20 similar cases.

Massey University banking lecturer Claire Matthews said recently she believed the pair would be hard pressed to argue they honestly believed they were entitled to such a huge sum of money.


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