- Turn yourself in voluntarily or be extradited, FG urges indicted Nigerians
The United States (US) authorities have announced charges against 80 people, most of them Nigerians, in a wide-ranging massive conspiracy to steal millions of dollars through a variety of fraud schemes and launder the funds through a Los Angeles-based money laundering network.
Federal prosecutors unsealed the dozens of indictments after 14 of the defendants were arrested and taken into custody in Los Angeles, as the remaining defendants are believed to be abroad with most them located in Nigeria.
A statement from the Justice Department disclosed that most of the remainder of those indicted were believed to be in Nigeria.
The indictment alleges that the defendants and others, used various online fraud schemes including business email compromise (BEC) frauds, romance scams, and schemes targeting victims in the United States and across the globe, including individuals, small and large businesses, and law firms.
Some of the victims of the conspiracy lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fraud schemes, and many were elderly.
The statement read in part: “Some of the victims of the conspiracy lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fraud schemes, and many were elderly.
“According to a criminal complaint also unsealed today, co-conspirators based in Nigeria, the United States 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 pretenses, Iro and Igbokwe coordinated the receipt of funds and oversaw an extensive money-laundering network.”
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, adding that the overall conspiracy was responsible for the attempted theft of at least an additional $40 million.
The United States Attorney, Nick Hanna, was quoted to have said: “This case is part of our ongoing efforts to protect Americans from fraudulent online schemes and to bring to justice those who prey upon American citizens and businesses.
“Today, we have taken a major step to disrupt criminal networks that use BEC 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.
“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 Assistant Director in Charge Paul Delacourt of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office.
“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. The FBI is committed to working with our partner agencies worldwide to continue to identify these cyber criminals and to dismantle their networks.”
Iro and Igbokwe, who were said to be brokers of fraudulent bank accounts, 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.
“If a bank account with a specific business name was required to trick a business-victim into making a payment, Iro and Igbokwe often coordinated with ‘money mules’ to open accounts that could receive funds obtained, according to court documents.
“In addition to making the fake business name mirror the name of a legitimate company, members of the conspiracy routinely filed fictitious business name statements with the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder’s Office that were presented to banks when the fraudulent accounts were opened.
“Once a victim deposited funds into a bank account or a money services account, Iro and Igbokwe allegedly coordinated with others to further launder the funds. Members of the conspiracy sometimes wired funds to other bank accounts under their control; in other cases, they simply withdrew funds as cash or negotiable instruments such as cashier’s checks.
“When stolen funds were withdrawn as cash, the defendants frequently used illicit money exchangers to move funds overseas, generally avoiding transferring the funds directly through banking institutions, the indictment alleges. To do this, Iro and Igbokwe coordinated the transfer of a victim’s funds from a fraudulent bank account they controlled to U.S. bank accounts belonging to illicit money exchangers. Those money exchangers, in turn, used a Nigerian banking application to transfer other funds in naira (₦), the currency of Nigeria, from Nigerian bank accounts they controlled to the Nigerian bank accounts specified by Iro and Igbokwe.
“This method was used to transfer millions of dollars to Nigerian co-conspirators without directly transferring funds overseas. The indictment alleges that Jerry Ikogho, 50, of Carson (who was taken into custody on Sunday), and Adegoke Moses Ogungbe, 34, of Fontana, were among those who served as illicit money exchangers for the conspiracy,” the statement added.
Each of the 80 defendants named in the indictment is charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money and aggravated identity theft, and will also face substantive fraud and money laundering charges.
Additionally, Iro, Igbokwe, Ikogho, Ogungbe and three other defendants –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.
Iro, Igbokwe and Chuks Eroha, 39, face additional charges for attempting to destroy their phones when the FBI executed a search warrant in July 2017.
Iro is also charged with lying to the FBI in an interview conducted during the search.
The complaint alleges that, when the FBI arrived to conduct the court-authorized search at Iro’s apartment in Carson, Iro broke his phone in half, while Igbokwe and Eroha threw phones from a bedroom window of the apartment.
While Iro claimed he previously had broken the phone during an argument with his wife, the complaint details how the FBI was able to determine that the phone was operational until seconds after the FBI knocked on Iro’s apartment door to execute the search warrant.
Eroha was believed to have fled to Nigeria shortly after the FBI executed the warrant.
According to the statement, “the charges contained in the criminal complaint and indictment are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in court.”
The investigation is being led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with support from United States Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office and the California Franchise Tax Board.
However, the Nigerian government has urged those Nigerians among the 80 persons indicted by the United States for massive email fraud and money laundering, presently in Nigeria to turn themselves in voluntarily or be extradited.
The Chairman/CEO of Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM),
Abike Dabiri-Erewa, who expressed sadness over the development in a statement, expressed hope that they will be given fair hearing.
She stated that her Commission is deeply concerned about the news of the court indictment adding that Valentine Iro and Chukwudi Christogunis Igbokwe; lead suspects, and Obinwanne Okeke had earlier been arrested in Virginia.
She said: “We acknowledge the fact that accusation does not mean guilt, and we hope that all the accused will be given fair and speedy trial.
“We also ask those accused in Nigeria to voluntarily turn themselves in, to American authorities to clear their names, without which the Nigerian government should extradite them if relevant international treaties between the two governments are invoked.”