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Email scammers bilked VCU out of nearly $470,000, U.S. officials say

The scammers used a fake email account to send phony billing requests to Virginia Commonwealth University, authorities allege.

Students walk around a RAMS sign at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, in 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

U.S. authorities said a dual citizen from Britain and Nigeria has been extradited to face charges of defrauding Virginia Commonwealth University of nearly $470,000 through an email scam in 2018.

The Justice Department said Olabanji Egbinola, 42, and two others landed in the United States on Wednesday after Britain’s highest court denied their extradition appeals last month. Prosecutors say they attempted to defraud victims of $5 million by using fake email addresses to impersonate real vendors in North Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Prosecutors said Egbinola controlled an email account that sent phony billing requests to Virginia Commonwealth University on behalf of Kjellstrom and Lee, a construction company that had been doing contract work for the university in Richmond.

The emails from “Rachel Moore” in fact came from an impostor account mimicking the construction company’s real domain name, according to prosecutors. After communicating with Moore over several months, VCU officials wired almost $470,000 in December 2018 to a bank account that U.S. officials said was controlled by Egbinola’s associates.

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Almost all of the money vanished in the space of three days, officials said. Two authorized signers on the bank account that received the funds issued a flurry of checks and made several wire transfers, scattering 96 percent of the funds to 25 different entities in amounts under $10,000, prosecutors said in the extradition request. They said those transfers appeared “to have been an effort to avoid currency transaction reporting requirements.”

The university was unable to recover the bulk of the money, U.S. officials said. However, VCU recouped “a significant amount” through insurance, according to a university spokesman.

“Additional safeguards were put in place to protect against this type of fraud,” VCU spokesman Brian McNeill said.

Egbinola was charged with conspiracy counts, wire fraud and money-laundering. The most serious charges carry a maximum prison penalty of 20 years, if he were convicted. As part of the investigation, the Justice Department also charged Oludayo Kolawole John Adeagbo, 43, in North Carolina and Texas; and Donald Ikenna Echeazu, 40, in North Carolina.

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Benjamin Beliles, a Richmond-based attorney for Egbinola, said that his client was “innocent of these charges entirely” and that the “evidence against him is entirely circumstantial.”

“He intends to hold the government to its burden, and take this case to trial as quickly as possible so that he can be exonerated,” Beliles said. “His wife and kids are in the U.K. waiting for his return, hopefully in the near future.”

An attorney for Adeagbo declined to comment.

W. Rob Heroy, an attorney for Echeazu, said his client “has pled not guilty to being a part of this scheme and looks forward to clearing his name.” Echeazu was charged alongside Adeagbo in North Carolina with wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and aggravated identity theft in a similar email scam. Prosecutors say they defrauded a North Carolina university of more than $1.9 million.

Egbinola has “a history of convictions for fraud crimes” in Britain, U.S. prosecutors said in a court filing, listing convictions from 2008, 2000 and 1999.

The fake domain name was not readily traceable, because the users accessing it masked their IP addresses by using virtual private servers, the FBI said. But an FBI special agent found a way to turn the tables in 2019, according to a court filing.

“An FBI special agent sent an email containing an attached document to from an account that appeared to be associated with VCU,” prosecutors said in the extradition request. “FBI investigators determined that someone accessed the email account and opened the attached document from an Internet account.”

It was registered to Egbinola’s wife in Essex, Britain — the same home where Egbinola resided, prosecutors said.