Eighty people have been charged in a massive international fraud scheme that sought to steal tens of millions of dollars from victims globally, including both businesses and individuals — some of whom prosecutors say were elderly.
A 145-page indictment unsealed Friday following the arrest of 14 of the 80 individuals named in connection with the Los Angeles-based scheme details a lengthy list of alleged crimes, including romance scams and other online fraud, as well as business email compromise (BEC) fraud. According to the U.S. Justice Department, the majority of the individuals were Nigerian nationals, and many of the individuals named in the indictment are thought to be located there.
Two of those individuals arrested this week, 31-year-old Valentine Iro and 38-year-old Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe — both of whom are named as lead defendants — allegedly helped facilitate money-laundering services as part of the scheme. When coconspirators were able to successfully scam victims out of money, the Justice Department said, “Iro and Igbokwe collected bank accounts, fielded requests for bank account information, provided that information to co-conspirators around the world, and laundered the money obtained from victims — all of this in exchange for a cut of the money stolen from victims of the various fraud schemes.”
One such individual manipulated by the fraudsters was identified in the indictment as “victim F.K.,” a Japanese woman who as part of an online romance scam was cheated out of $US200,000 ($296,780) that she borrowed from friends and family. According to CNN, the victim received daily emails that progressed the fraudulent romance in English and she would then run the text through Google Translate.
Citing a federal complaint, the Associated Press reported that F.K. believed she was romantically involved with a U.S. Army captain named Terry Garcia who was preparing to smuggle diamonds out of Syria. But both the diamonds and Garcia were a fabrication intended to scam F.K. out of dozens of payments using various manipulation tactics.
“F.K. was and is extremely depressed and angry about these losses,” the federal complaint states, per the Associated Press. “She began crying when discussing the way that these losses have affected her.”
According to the Justice Department, at least $US6 ($9) million was successfully stolen as part of the schemes, though the operation’s attempted theft amounted to least $US40 ($59) million. All 80 of the named defendants were charged with aggravated identity theft, conspiracy to commit fraud and conspiracy to launder money. Some of the named defendants, including Iro and Igbokwe, face additional charges.
“Today’s announcement highlights the extensive efforts that organised criminal groups will engage in to perpetrate BEC schemes that target American citizens and their hard-earned assets,” Assistant Director in Charge Paul Delacourt, of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, said in a statement. “Billions of dollars are lost annually, and we urge citizens to be aware of these sophisticated financial schemes to protect themselves or their businesses from becoming unsuspecting victims.”