By Obinna Amaobi, Abuja
A Federal grand jury indictment unsealed on Thursday charged 80 people, most of whom are Nigerians, with participating in a massive conspiracy to steal millions of dollars through a variety of fraud schemes.
The Department of Justice (DoJ) said the suspects plan to launder the funds through a Los Angeles-based money laundering network.
The indictment was unsealed after the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted a series of raids yesterday morning and arrested 14 defendants across the United States (U.S.), with 11 of those arrests taking place in the Los Angeles region.
Two defendants were already in federal custody on other charges, and one was arrested earlier in the week. The remaining defendants are believed to be abroad, with most them located in Nigeria.
According to the indictment, the individuals charged used various online fraud schemes – including business email compromise (BEC) frauds, romance scams, and schemes targeting the elderly – to defraud victims out of millions of dollars.
According to a criminal complaint also unsealed yesterday, co-conspirators based in Nigeria, the U.S. and other countries contacted the lead defendants in the indictment – Valentine Iro, 31, of Carson, and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, 38, of Gardena, both Nigerian citizens – for bank and money-service accounts that could receive funds fraudulently obtained from victims.
Once members of the conspiracy convinced victims to send money under false pretences, Iro and Igbokwe coordinated the receipt of funds and oversaw an extensive money-laundering network, according to the 145-page indictment.
The indictment and criminal complaint allege that Iro and Igbokwe, who were among those arrested, were involved in schemes resulting in the fraudulent transfer of at least $6 million in fraudulently-obtained funds – and the overall conspiracy was responsible for the attempted theft of at least an additional $40 million.
The individuals named in the indictment targeted victims in the United States and across the globe, including individuals, small and large businesses, and law firms, the FBI said. Some of the victims of the conspiracy lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fraud schemes, and many were elderly.
Each of the 80 defendants named in the indictment is charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money, and aggravated identity theft. A number of the defendants also face substantive fraud and money laundering charges.
Additionally, Iro, Igbokwe, and five other defendants –Jerry Ikogho, 50, of Carson, Adegoke Moses Ogungbe, 34, of Fontana, Izuchukwu Kingsley Umejesi, 30, of Los Angeles, Tityaye Marina Mansbangura, 33, of Palmdale, and Obi Madekwe, 31, of Nigeria – are charged with operating illegal money transmitting businesses. Ogungbe and Mansbangura were also among those arrested yesterday morning, and Umejesi is a fugitive currently being sought by authorities.
U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna held a news conference to announce the domestic arrests and the unsealing of the federal indictment charging the 80 defendants.
He was accompanied by officials from the FBI, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office.
Hanna said the case was part of an ongoing effort to protect citizens and businesses from email scams.
The attorney said: “Today, we have taken a major step to disrupt criminal networks that use [business email scam] 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.”
These business email scams rely partly on deception and in some cases hacking. Scammers send specially crafted emails to their targets in order to trick them into turning over sensitive information about the company, such as sending employee W-2 tax documents so scammers can generate fraudulent refunds, or tricking an employee into making wire transfers to bank accounts controlled by the scammers. More often than not, the scammers use spoofing techniques to impersonate a senior executive over email to trick the unsuspecting victim, or hack into the email account of the person they are impersonating.
The FBI says these impersonation attacks have cost consumers and businesses more than $3 billion since 2015.
Valentine Iro, 31, and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, 38, both Nigerian nationals and residents of California, are accused of running the operation, said the prosecutors.
The alleged fraudsters are accused of carrying out several hundred “overt” acts of fraud against more than a dozen victims, generating millions of dollars’ worth of fraud over several months.
In some cases, the fraudsters would hack into the email accounts of the person they were trying to impersonate to try to trick a victim into wiring money from business into the fraudster’s bank account.
Iro and Igbokwe were “essentially brokers” of fraudulent bank accounts, prosecutors allege, by fielding requests for bank account information and laundering the money obtained from victims.
The two lead defendants are accused of taking a cut of the stolen money. They also allegedly used illicit money exchanges to launder the money.
Many bank accounts run by the fraudsters contained more than $40 million in stolen funds.
The FBI said the agency has seen a large increase in the number of business email scams in the past year targeting small and large businesses, as well as nonprofits