Justice charges 80 in massive online fraud case linked to Nigerian defendants

Justice charges 80 in massive online fraud case linked to Nigerian defendants
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The Department of Justice on Thursday unsealed a 252-count federal indictment charging 80 defendants, many of whom are Nigerian nationals, with conspiring to steal millions of dollars through online scams.

The indictment was unsealed by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California and was made public shortly after authorities arrested 14 of the defendants across the United States, with 11 of these defendants apprehended in the Los Angeles region. The majority of the defendants are outside the country, with many likely in Nigeria. 

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The defendants involved in the case were charged with attempting to defraud individuals of millions of dollars through the use of business email compromise (BEC) and online romance scams, in addition to other schemes meant to target the elderly. 

The investigation is being led by the FBI, with each of the defendants charged with “conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money, and aggravated identity theft,” according to Justice Department. Some defendants also face fraud and money laundering charges.

U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna described the scams used by the defendants during a press conference on Thursday, saying that “fraud networks now target individuals and businesses alike.”

“In the BEC scams, the fraudsters will often hack a company’s email system, impersonate company personnel, and direct payments to bank accounts that funnel money back to the fraudsters in Nigeria,” Hanna said. “In the romance scams, victims think they are developing a dating relationship, when in fact they are just being tricked into sending money to the fraudsters.”

Hanna added that “we believe this is one of the largest cases of its kind in U.S. history.”

Paul Delacourt, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, said during the same press conference that losses involved in this case for victims total around $10 million. He said defendants attempted to obtain $40 million from victims. 

There were at least 32 victims in the case, from the United States and other countries including Japan, the United Kingdom, Lebanon, Ukraine, China, Mexico, Germany, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Delacourt said the case began in 2016 after one individual was victimized by the defendants. The two main defendants in the case are Nigerian citizens Valentine Iro and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe.

“In the days ahead, we will be working with our foreign counterparts in nine countries to apprehend 57 additional defendants,” Delacourt said, noting that six defendants are still at large in the United States. 

Delacourt emphasized the seriousness of these types of fraud, noting that in the first seven months of 2019, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received more than 14,000 complaints related to BEC scams, with a total loss of nearly $1.1 billion for victims. 

“This crime is growing exponentially in terms of losses and victims,” Delacourt said. “While we are happy to announce these charges today, we are not going to arrest our way out of this problem, and we so we continue to educate potential victims.”