- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Treasury Department said Tuesday that it has frozen the assets of six Nigerian scammers who targeted American businesses and widows for internet fraud, hoping the same financial tools used against terrorism and drug cartels can make a dent in email phishing scams.

Government officials called the sanctions an “extraordinary step” as the Justice Department announced fraud and identity theft indictments against the six men, all of whom are still at large.

Those announcements were made a day after federal prosecutors in Boston announced that they had arrested and charged two Nigerian men who they say are responsible for stealing coronavirus unemployment benefit money.

Long the bane of many an email inbox, Nigerian scammers are aiming ever higher in their criminal aspirations. The Secret Service says the unemployment benefit scam could total as much as $500 million in bogus payments.

The scams rely in some cases on unwitting people, and in other instances on duping the vulnerable — particularly lonely, elderly or widowed people — with promises of romance. In many cases, they are assisted by access to massive databases that detail corporations’ inner workings, or sensitive private information on tens of millions of Americans.

“The U.S. will not tolerate such gross misuse of technology,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in announcing the sanctions to the world. “The United States will use all of the tools at our disposal to defend the American people and businesses from malign actors that seek to target them, including cyber-enabled actors who prey on vulnerable Americans and businesses.”

Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is usually called in to action to punish the likes of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard or al Qaeda, though in 2016 it did slap penalties on a financial company that processed payments for mail fraud schemes that prayed on vulnerable Americans.

But going after Nigerian internet scammers appears to be new ground for the office.

Adam M. Smith, a former Obama administration official who served as senior adviser to the OFAC director at Treasury, said it’s hard to tell what the impact of the Nigerian sanctions will be.

“It could be a real deterrent and potentially even make some operations impossible (if they have a U.S. touchpoint). Or it could just be a nuisance,” said Mr. Smith, now a law partner at Gibson Dunn. “It is not clear and without understanding how these individuals accessed the internet and operated their scams, it will be hard to say definitively what the impact will be.”

According to indictments unsealed in federal court in Nebraska, the six Nigerians cited Tuesday would use compromised email accounts pretending to be senior executives to send messages to thousands of employees at businesses.

They targeted personnel with authority to approve spending and wire transfers, and, in the persona of a senior executive, would order immediate wire transfers. Fooled employees would approve the spending.

At the same time, the scammers would snare lonely people with online personal ads, starting romances then roping them into the fraud by having the bogus business wire payments sent to them, then forwarded to the scammers.

Named in the indictments and slapped with sanctions Tuesday are Richard Uzuh, Michael Olorunyomi, Alex Ogunshakin, Felix Okpoh, Nnamdi Benson and Abiola Kayode.

All of them are Nigerian citizens and, according to wanted posters issued Tuesday, they are believed to be living in Nigeria.

Two others implicated in the scam have pleaded guilty already, with one getting a five-year sentence and another getting eight years.

Federal authorities said they could trace at least $6 million in business losses to the scam, though an FBI agent said in an affidavit in one of the cases that scheme was so complex and there were so many victims that the exact amount is “likely much greater.”

Mr. Uzuh and Adewale Aniyeloye, one of those who already pleaded guilty, were tagged for attempting to pilfer $30 million in 2015 alone for their part of the scam.

While those types of business and romance scams are common, authorities say Nigerian rings may be behind much of the unemployment fraud linked to the coronavirus economic stimulus.

A Secret Service official last week told Congress that financial institutions believe they’ve intercepted $500 million worth of bogus claims, with Washington state’s unemployment system alone accounting for $300 million.

Two Nigerian men arrested in Massachusetts last week have been linked to at least some of that fraud, with attempted payments from both Washington and Pennsylvania unemployment systems in the names of people who told the FBI they never applied for unemployment.

Nosayamen Iyalekhue and Esogie Osawaru also stand accused of running romance schemes, using fake foreign passports to open multiple bank accounts then have the victims send money to those accounts.

In one case, the FBI says, a 64-year-old Texas woman was wooed online, then enticed into sending $125,500 over the course of a year and a half, into accounts controlled by the men. Another woman from Michigan sent more than $100,000 since 2018. Yet another woman from Alabama sent $150,000 to a man with whom she built an online romance, believing he was a member of the U.S. military.

All told, the FBI documented at least a dozen victims in court documents.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide