The FBI has charged 80 people, mostly Nigerian nationals, for being part of a “massive conspiracy” to defraud millions of dollars from businesses, the elderly, and vulnerable women.
The suspects used online scams — including romance scams and business schemes where fraudsters hacked into company escrow accounts — to deceive their targets and convince them to give up at least $6 million and attempted to steal another $40 million.
“We believe this is one of the largest cases of its kind in US history,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said, according to CNN.
One of the scams highlighted by U.S. prosecutors detailed the story of a Japanese woman who believed she was corresponding with a U.S. army captain stationed in Syria.
The two had been digital pen pals before the relationship turned romantic and the man claimed he had discovered a bag of diamonds in Syria. He wanted the woman’s help to smuggle the diamonds out and soon began requesting money to help with the effort in the elaborate ruse.
The woman, known in documents as FK, also believed she was corresponding with an acquaintance of her online love who was a Red Cross diplomat. The diplomat was planning to help get the diamonds shipped to her.
Over 10 months, she sent $200,000 to the man she believed was her army captain in the ill-fated attempt to move the diamonds. To gather the money, she had borrowed from family, friends, and her ex-husband.
But the army captain never existed and neither did the bag of diamonds. The scam was actually being run by two Nigerian men based in Los Angeles, who relied on associates in Nigeria and other countries to pull off the deception.
“FK was and is extremely depressed and angry about these losses,” the federal complaint states according to The Associated Press.
On Thursday, August 22, the United State’s Attorney’s Office Central District of California announced the release of a 252-count federal grand jury indictment charging 80 people in the “massive conspiracy,” according to a statement put out by the federal office.
Two of the suspects, Valentine Iro, 31, and Chukwudi Chrisogunus Igbokwe, 38, were named as “lead” defendants in the case and are suspected of coordinating “the receipt of funds” and overseeing “an extensive-money-laundering network” once other members of the conspiracy had convinced victims to send money under false pretenses.
The pair are among 17 people named in the indictment who have been arrested by authorities. Many of the other suspects live in other countries. Federal prosecutors plan to work with the countries to extradite those charged.
All 80 are facing charges of conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money, and aggravated identity theft. Some are also facing additional charges of substantive fraud and money laundering charges, authorities said.
According to federal prosecutors the scams not only relied on romantic deceptions, but also included schemes to target businesses including business email compromise (BEC) frauds.
“This case is part of our ongoing efforts to protect Americans from fraudulent online schemes and to bring to justice those who prey upon American citizens and businesses,” Hanna said. “Today, we have taken a major step to disrupt criminal networks that use BEC schemes, romance scams and other frauds to fleece victims. This indictment sends a message that we will identify perpetrators – no matter where they reside – and we will cut off the flow of ill-gotten gains.”
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