Eighty people have been charged for their roles in a massive and complex fraud operation that attempted to steal $46 million in business email compromise (BEC) and romance scams, according to the US Department of Justice in a 252-count federal grand jury indictment unsealed on August 22.
The October 18 indictment alleges 80 defendants, mostly Nigerian nationals, used BEC fraud, romance scams, and schemes targeting the elderly to defraud victims out of millions in a scheme that ran from 2014 through 2018. At least $6 million was taken in that time; the conspiracy targeted another $40 million. Some defendants, including 14 arrested Thursday and others in custody, are based in the US. Officials believe most are abroad, primarily in Nigeria.
Lead defendants in the case are Valentine Iro and Chukwudi Igbokwe, both Nigerian citizens living in California. A criminal complaint unsealed August 22 alleges co-conspirators based in the US, Nigeria, and other countries would contact Iro and Igbokwe when they needed bank and money-service accounts to store ill-gotten funds. The duo collected bank accounts, accepted requests for bank account information, gave that information to co-conspirators, and laundered victims' stolen money in exchange for a percentage, according to the 145-page indictment.
The indictment includes descriptions of more than 440 "overt acts" conducted in the operation, including details of fraudulent wire transfers and cash withdrawals affecting different victims.
Co-conspirators regularly filed fake business name statements with the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder's Office that were presented to banks to open fraudulent accounts. If a bank account with a specific business name was needed to trick an organization into making a payment, Iro and Igbokwe coordinated with money mules to open accounts to receive the funds. Once a victim deposited cash, they'd work with others to launder it by wiring money to other accounts they owned or withdrawing it as cash or cashier's checks, the indictment states.
When stolen money was withdrawn as cash, defendants would use illegal money exchangers to move it overseas while bypassing legitimate banks. The money exchangers used a Nigerian banking app to transfer other funds in naira, the Nigerian currency, from Nigerian bank accounts they controlled to other Nigerian bank accounts owned by the lead defendants.
Each of the 80 defendants is charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money, and aggravated identity theft. Some also face substantive fraud and money-laundering charges, and seven are charged with operating illegal money transmitting businesses.
On top of those, Iro, Igbokwe, and defendant Chuks Eroha face charges for trying to destroy their phones when the FBI arrived with a search warrant in July 2017. Upon agents' arrival at Iro's apartment, he broke his phone in half while the other two defendants threw theirs out a bedroom window. Iro is charged with lying to the FBI in an interview done during the search.
"Today's announcement highlights the extensive efforts that organized criminal groups will engage in to perpetrate BEC schemes that target American citizens and their hard-earned assets," said Paul Delacourt, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office, 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."
BEC is a growing problem for businesses and consumers: Last summer the FBI reported BEC fraud had cost $12 billion in losses to organizations around the world since 2013. These attacks, in which fraudsters attempt to con victims out of money by posing as someone they know, are growing in frequency and complexity as criminals find new, more creative ways to do them.