LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A 252-count federal grand jury indictment unsealed today in Los Angeles charges 80 defendants, most of whom are Nigerian nationals, with participating in a massive conspiracy to steal millions of dollars through a variety of cyber fraud schemes and funnel the funds through a Southland-based money laundering network.
The indictment was unsealed in Los Angeles federal court after authorities arrested 14 defendants across the United States, with 11 of those arrests taking place in the Los Angeles region, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Two defendants were already in federal custody on other charges, and one was arrested earlier this week. A half-dozen defendants believed to be in the United States are fugitives, and most of the remaining defendants are believed to be in Nigeria.
The various online fraud schemes alleged in the complaint include business email compromise -- BEC -- frauds, romance scams and schemes targeting the elderly to defraud victims out of millions of dollars.
"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 at a news conference in downtown Los Angeles. "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."
According to a criminal complaint also unsealed Thursday, co- conspirators 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 145-page indictment alleges.
"In some cases, victims thought they were communicating with U.S. soldiers stationed overseas, when in fact they were emailing with con men," Hanna said. "Some of the victims in this case lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in this way. And some of the victims of romance scams and other online fraud schemes were targeted because they are elderly and vulnerable."
The indictment and criminal complaint allege that Iro and Igbokwe, who were among those arrested Thursday, were involved in schemes resulting in the fraudulent transfer of at least $6 million in illegally obtained funds -- and the overall conspiracy was responsible for the attempted theft of at least an additional $40 million.
The defendants allegedly targeted about 30 victims -- including eight elderly Americans who were snared in romance scams or get-rich-quick schemes -- in the United States and across the globe, including small and large businesses and law firms. Federal prosecutors said the conspiracy took in a total of $10 million.
"Most victims never get their money back -- ever," said Assistant Director in Charge Paul Delacourt of the FBI's Los Angeles field office.
Each of the 80 defendants named in the indictment is charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money and aggravated identity theft, which could bring decades in federal prison upon conviction on all charges. A number of the defendants also face substantive fraud and money laundering charges.
"At some point, most Americans have been the target of an online fraud attempt," Hanna said. "Who can forget the Nigerian Prince scams, in which the fraudster claims to have millions of dollars in Nigeria and needs the victim to help get the money out of the country? Over the years, these scams have evolved and become more complex."
Prosecutors allege that Iro and Igbokwe were essentially brokers of fraudulent bank accounts. According to the indictment, the defendants 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 in exchange for a cut of the money stolen from victims of the various 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 withdrew funds as cash or negotiable instruments such as cashier's checks, according to the indictment.
Iro, Igbokwe and Chuks Eroha, 39, of Carson face additional charges for allegedly attempting to destroy their phones when the FBI executed a search warrant in July 2017. Iro also is 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, he broke his phone in half, while Igbokwe and Eroha threw phones from a bedroom window of the apartment.