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Police step up search for Rotorua couple

Published: 4:30AM Friday May 22, 2009 Source: NZPA

The hunt is being stepped up for the couple who've absconded, after finding themselves $10 million richer, as a result of a banking error.

Interpol and the NZ Police are searching for a Rotorua service station owner and his girlfriend who are believed to have fled New Zealand after gaining a multi-million windfall through a bank's blunder.

On Friday morning, BP took its sign off the service station, run by the alleged offenders, Leo Gao, and his partner Cara Young.  

The mistake involved Westpac allowing for an overdraft facility believed to be $10 million to be credited to a business account, though the account holders were thought to have applied for only $10,000.

It has been reported that Westpac has recovered $4 million, but $6 million is still missing.

Police said those being sought have fled overseas and international police liaison organisation Interpol has been called in to help find them.

Officer-in-charge, Detective Senior Sergeant David Harvey of Rotorua CIB, would not confirm on Thursday the names of those being sought, or the amount of money in question.

But it has been reported that Leo Gao and his girlfriend Cara left the country after his service station on Old Taupo Road in Rotorua was abandoned. It is reported other family members of Gao are also missing.

Records showed the service station, known as BP Barnett, was owned by Huan Di Zhang and Hui Gao. It was placed in receivership earlier this month.

No one seemed to be clear on where the couple have gone, but the Rotorua Review newspaper said they might be in China.

A source told the newspaper a police liaison officer was sent to China recently to search for the couple.

Westpac said it is "pursing vigorous criminal and civil action to recover the sum of money stolen".

It would not confirm the amount, but said human error was responsible for the mistaken windfall, not a systems error, and that the bank is reviewing its procedures.

The union representing bank workers, says even though the staff member had made a serious mistake, they won't necessarily get the sack.

Andrew Campbell is from Finsec doubts the employee responsible will lose their job.

He says unless there's proof such a mistake was intentional, the general rule is that it's not a sackable offence.

Campbell understands how such an error can occur, which is why banks have thorough checking systems.

Service station abandoned

Neighbours of BP Barnett  said it had closed suddenly and for a while motorists were still driving in to fill up thinking it was open.

The Daily Post newspaper reported the company owed money to creditors.

The creditors report, being prepared by Corporate Finance Limited, is not due until 19 July. Corporate Finance Limited would not comment.

Banking ombudsman Liz Brown told The Daily Post that generally speaking it is a criminal offence for people to spend money accidentally put into their bank account if they know the money isn't theirs.

In her 15 years as banking ombudsman she has been involved in 10 to 20 cases of this nature. They are legally referred to as "payment by mistake".

What would you do? Run with the money or give it back? Ever found a sum of money in your account, you knew wasn't yours? Share on our message board below!

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  • siping said on 2009-08-28 @ 16:35 NZDT: Report abusive post

    I think Mr bentley is either living in a dream world or has ideas of NZ well above its station. Why would the Chinese gvt want to help NZ is one question, but to suggest we put pressure on China is ludicrous, NZ is, comparatively, a backward little puddle in the Pacific which no one outside of her shores takes seriously. Most Chinese I talk to here think Gao is a national hero.

  • pratalno said on 2009-08-28 @ 15:49 NZDT: Report abusive post

    If they are in fact in HK, they'll certainly be caught at some stage. But if they are in Mainland China they will be able to live well forever here with that money and very unlikely to get caught (unless they want to leave the country) and if ever a police officer turned up, treat them to a dinner and flick them some cash and they'll turn a blind eye - that's the way it works here. Maybe they are quite smart~ :)

  • benrebo said on 2009-05-27 @ 09:56 NZDT: Report abusive post

    Interestingly when the commerce commission rules banks have wrongly charged people (millions), and refused to give the money back when customers made them aware of it, they just get told to refund - no criminal charges. When someone takes money off them, and keeps it after the bank makes them aware of it, they are a criminal. Gao should be able to pay them back or if not face bankruptcy

  • rosebee said on 2009-05-27 @ 05:08 NZDT: Report abusive post

    $3.8m? How long will that last. No surprise he went bust if this typifies his risk/benefit analysis

  • said on 2009-05-25 @ 09:51 NZDT: Report abusive post

    I hope they are caught. I was credits with 250k once in my bank account. Told the bank straight away, it was actually a transfer error on the part of another customer. Got a nice letter of thanks from both the bank and the customer for that. Personally I think living like they are and having to look over your shoulder, waiting for that heavy hand of the law, would be too much. Na, honesty is the best policy