Federal prosecutors today unsealed a 252-count indictment against 80 individuals – mostly Nigerian nationals – who allegedly conspired to bilk at least $46 million from victims via romance scams, business email compromises and other online fraud schemes.
The grand jury indictment was filed in the Central District of California back in October 2018 and unsealed only after the arrest this morning of 14 defendants in the U.S. – 11 in the Los Angeles area, the apparent epicenter of the scam. Two others were placed in federal custody prior to the law enforcement crackdown, and another was arrested earlier this week. The remaining 63 individuals are believed to be abroad, with most in Nigeria.
A press release issued by the Department of Justice identify the lead defendants as fellow Nigerian citizens Valentine Iro, 31, of Carson, California and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, 38, of Gardena, California. The pair, both of whom were arrested, allegedly coordinated the management of funds accumulated by the operation and spearheaded a worldwide money-laundering network that elicited the help of money mules who set up fraudulent bank accounts and illicit money exchangers who moved monies overseas.
The alleged scam began no later than Oct. 7, 2014 and continued through at least May 2, 2018, the DOJ states. All named defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money, and aggravated identity theft, and a portion of this group face additional fraud and money laundering charges.
Iro and Igbokwe were also charged with operating illegal money transmitting businesses, along with Jerry Ikogho, 50, of Carson, Calif.; Adegoke Moses Ogungbe, 34, of Fontana, Calif.; Izuchukwu Kingsley Umejesi, 30, of Los Angeles; Tityaye Marina Mansbangura, 33, of Palmdale, Calif.; and Obi Madekwe, 31, of Nigeria. Finally, Iro, Igbokwe and Chuks Eroha, 39, of California, also face charges related to alleged attempts to destroy evidence.
Ikogho, Ogungbe and Mansbangura are among those in federal custody following the string of arrests. The indictment also cites at least 26 un-indicted co-conspirators.
According to the DOJ, victims of the massive operation included individuals – many elderly – and businesses of all sizes, including law firms.
"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," said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna, in the DOJ release. "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,” added 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."