Seven Africans admit to global fraud network

Crime | U.S. Justice Department said conspiracy cost tens of millions of dollars
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 12/19/16, 10:03 am

Six Nigerian men and a South African woman admitted last week to participating in a 15-year-old global online fraud scheme, the U.S. Justice Department said.

The seven defendants pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and all but one of them also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit identity theft, access device fraud, and theft of government funds. Fourteen other members of the network also face charges in a federal court in Gulfport, Miss.

The investigation began in 2011 after one woman reported to police that a man she met on a dating website sent her cellular phones to repackage and reship, according to court documents. Homeland Security investigators used her laptop to correspond with the man and discovered the conspiracy involved more than 200 people worldwide. The scammers ran the operation out of South Africa and Nigeria, court papers revealed.

The scheme, which dates back to at least 2001, involved tens of millions of dollars in losses, the Justice Department said.

The defendants admitted to setting up “romance scams,” in which they connected with their victims on dating websites, gained their trust, and used them to send money and participate in other schemes. According to the court’s statement of facts, the transactions involved depositing and wiring money to other people from $29 million in checks and money orders that turned out to be counterfeit. The scammers also deceived their victims into repackaging and reshipping purchases bought with more than 39,000 stolen credit cards numbers, and made use of hundreds of thousands of fake postal and private shipping labels. The statement revealed the U.S. Postal Service lost $300,000 to the scam.

Sheila Wilbanks, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Gregory Davis, said four of the 14 others also facing charges have pleaded guilty, one will face trial next month, two are yet to be extradited from Nigeria, two others are still on the run, while the last two have died.

The U.S. Embassy receives hundreds and sometimes thousands of enquiries on a daily basis from people defrauded by internet scammers, many who claim to be in Nigeria. The website details several scenarios in which the scammers may claim to have been involved in an accident or are detained in a U.S. Embassy and need some payment for their release. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement website also has a “tip form” people can use to report cyber crimes, among other violations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.

Read more from this writer