Federal prosecutors indicted 80 people on Thursday on charges connected to participation in online scams that raked in millions from unsuspecting victims in the United States and abroad.
The suspected fraudsters, many of whom are Nigerian nationals, prosecutors say, who used online romance scams, schemes targeting elderly people and business email compromise (BEC) scams, in which legitimate companies are compromised to facilitate the illegal transfer of funds. The FBI began investigating the operation in 2016, and this week, authorities arrested 14 people across the United States — 11 in the Los Angeles area alone. Two people were already in custody, and many are believed to be abroad, primarily in Nigeria, prosecutors said in their announcement.
“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,” U.S.Attorney Nick Hanna said in a statement.
The operation revealed by prosecutors on Thursday had obtained $6 million through fraudulent means, and attempted to steal at least $40 million more.
Of the dozens indicted this week, prosecutors targeted two people as the suspected ringleaders of the operation: Valentine Iro, 31, and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, 38, both Nigerian citizens who resided in Los Angeles County. They allegedly coordinated a network of co-conspirators who operated fraudulent bank accounts and laundered the money obtained from victims worldwide, keeping a cut for themselves.
“We believe this is one of the largest cases of its kind in U.S. history,” Hanna said at Thursday news conference, ABC reported.
“In some cases, the victims thought they were communicating with U.S. servicemen stationed overseas, when in fact, they were emailing with con men,” he said. “Some of the victims in this case lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in this way.”
One victim, identified in the complaint only as M.S., was allegedly conned by an unknown conspirator into wiring a total of $91,000 to a bank account controlled by Iro. Another female victim, named as R.B., was tricked into transferring $87,000 to the alleged thieves.
While both businesses and individuals were targeted in the scheme, prosecutors spotlighted the case of a Japanese woman who was tricked into sending an alleged scammer, posing as a U.S. Army captain stationed in Syria, $200,000 that she borrowed from friends and family, ABC reports. The alleged fraudster developed an online relationship with the woman, identified only as F.K. in the indictment, during which the scammer made “romantic overtures.”
Romance scams, which have been steadily on the rise for years, can be particularly lucrative for thieves and financially devastating for their targets. Fraudsters create fake profiles and personas online, and target individuals looking for love or other companionship. After establishing an online relationship, thieves will often ask for money or gifts, or for assistance in transferring funds. Elderly people are particularly vulnerable to losing large sums in these schemes, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC received more complaints of these scams in 2018 than they did for any other form of consumer fraud. That year, the FTC received more than 21,000 reports of such frauds, totaling a loss of $143 million. Victims lost a median of $2,600 through such schemes — more than any other type of consumer fraud.