Police break up a network that illegally helped foreigners stay in Thailand, arresting dozens

BANGKOK (AP) — Thai police have broken up a large network that illegally helped foreigners, mostly Russians, to stay in Thailand long-term through the use of company nominees or shell companies, officials said Friday.

Police said a 45-year-old Russian woman who came to Thailand in 2012 operated the scheme with a Thai woman who was listed as an executive or a shareholder of more than 270 companies in the southern province of Phuket.

Foreigners can operate a business in Thailand, but it must be a joint venture with a Thai partner except in specified cases, and they cannot own more than 49% to protect local competitiveness.

The defendants offered a service in which foreigners could be listed as a shareholder of a business with a Thai partner or be employed by a shell company owned by Thais in order to get a work permit, said Puttidej Bunkrapue, commander of the police Economic Crime Suppression Division.

A total of 98 foreigners, including 68 Russians, have been accused of operating businesses without a permit, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a million baht ($27,000) fine, police said. In addition, 37 Thais were accused of offenses related to the network.

Officials said the network is likely to have been in operation since 2016, but there had been a sharp increase in its customers since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

At least 50 of the foreigners have been officially charged as of Friday, said chief investigator Krit Woratat.

Phuket is a major tourist destination and is particularly popular among Russians. Police said more than 90,000 Russians arrived in the province from 2019 to early 2024.

They said there has also been a sharp increase in the number of company registrations by Russians in Phuket. More than 1,600 companies have been registered under Russian names from 2023 to early 2024, compared to approximately 30 companies per year in 2016-2022, they said.