There are fears Victorian bikies are developing a foothold in Melbourne car wash businesses, as the motorcycle gangs are tipped to further diversify their business connections.
Fairfax Media reported this morning bikie gang the Comancheros holds stakes in car washes in Port Melbourne and St Kilda and has allegedly threatened rival business owners.
However, the chief executive of the Australian Car Wash Association, Diane Ross, told SmartCompany it’s the first time she’s heard of the issue and it largely involves hand car wash companies.
“It’s a worrying issue because so many car washes are owned by small family companies who are mums and dads who could be scared by this,” she says.
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“It’s the first time we’ve had any inkling of this.”
Ross says hand car wash businesses in the inner city tend not to join the AWCA and there is a greater risk of activities such as money laundering.
“Police are exactly right in what they’re saying. It could be an easy way to launder money, but not large amounts,” she says.
“The amount you pay for a car wash is equivalent to about a cup of coffee, so it won’t be millions of dollars.”
SmartCompany contacted Victoria Police about the issue this morning, but no comment was available prior to publication.
According to Fairfax Media reports, car washes can provide an easy means to launder money because they’re largely cash businesses where revenue streams can be easily manipulated.
“You can easily increase the number of cars the business claims to wash and because most payments are in cash, it is hard for police to separate legitimate income from invented revenue that can hide dirty money,” an unnamed law enforcement officer was quoted as saying by Fairfax.
The ACWA is urging concerned members to display their organisation membership.
“Scared businesses should strongly display signage that they’re a member of the association. It shows they’re supported by a good quality members association,” Ross says.
The car wash industry isn’t the first to be infiltrated by bikie gangs. Tattoo parlours, massage salons, brothels and debt collection businesses are well known to have links to bikie groups.
Criminologist and bikie expert Dr Terry Goldsworthy from Bond University told SmartCompany bikies are starting to move into non-traditional sectors.
“It doesn’t surprise me if they’re moving into non-normal industries which we haven’t previously associated with them,” he says.
“They’re seeking to diversify and put money into businesses which are more legitimate. I think we’ll see more of this.”
Bikie gangs came under fire from police and the media in Queensland last year, which resulted in tough new anti-bikie laws being implemented.
But Goldsworthy says this is the first he’s heard of bikies being associated with car washes.
“It hasn’t been done here yet… it’s fairly unskilled, it doesn’t require much history in the industry and it can be set up by anyone with a drive-in garage,” he says.
“It doesn’t take much to rent a space and hire cheap labour to wash the cars. By nature the businesses are fairly transient.”
Goldsworthy says the high scrutiny of bikie activity in Queensland is starting to spread into other states.
“Traditionally they’ve been involved in industries like massage parlours and tattoo parlours, but if they’re running businesses they’re choosing others which aren’t tainted,” he says.
“They’re often accused by law enforcement as being fronts for money laundering schemes, but if this is the case charges need to be laid. The issue needs a bit of put up or shut up. The claims being made by law enforcement need to be validated by charges.”
Goldsworthy says it’s not impossible for a bikie to be running a legitimate business.
“Here in Queensland, anytime you see a bikie in a business there is almost a moral panic by law enforcement, but there must be charges,” he says.
“We hear that they’re threatening other business owners, but we have extortion laws, so you can take action. People just need to report it. If I was the owner of another car wash company I’d be reporting it to police as soon as possible.”
Last month a case emerged of a Western Australian business which had its identity stolen by a group of Queensland bikies and used to orchestrate a $1.4 million investment scheme.