U.S. federal prosecutors have announced a 252-count indictment charging 80 people, mostly Nigerian nationals, with being part of a widespread conspiracy to steal millions of dollars through a variety of scams and then launder the money.
The federal grand jury indictment was unsealed Thursday after authorities arrested 14 defendants across the United States, including 11 in the Los Angeles area, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California. Three other defendants were already in federal custody. Six defendants believed to be in the country are fugitives, while the dozens of remaining defendants live in other nations, mainly Nigeria.
U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said the defendants allegedly used various "sophisticated" online fraud schemes to prey upon businesses, elderly individuals and people who may have been susceptible to a romance-related scam.
"We believe this is one of the largest cases of its kind in U.S. history," Hanna told reporters at a press conference Thursday. "We are taking a major step to disrupt these criminal networks."
Paul Delacourt, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office, said the defendants defrauded victims out of at least $6 million and attempted to steal at least another $40 million.
Billions of dollars are lost each year through these types of frauds, according to Delacourt. In the first seven months of 2019, more than 14,000 people filed complaints with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center alleging they were victims of business email compromise, or BEC, scams, reporting total losses of almost $1.1 billion
"This crime is growing exponentially in terms of losses and victims," Delacourt told reporters at Thursday's press conference. "While we are happy to announce these charges today, we are not going to arrest our way out of this problem, and so we continue to educate potential victims."
The lead defendants named in the 145-page indictment are Valentine Iro, 31, and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, 38, both Nigerian citizens who live in California and were among those arrested Thursday morning. Prosecutors allege that the pair essentially operated as "brokers of fraudulent bank accounts."
Co-conspirators based in Nigeria, the United States and other nations contacted Iro and Igbokwe for bank and money-service accounts that could receive funds fraudulently obtained from victims. Once co-conspirators convinced victims to send money under false pretenses, Iro and Igbokwe allegedly coordinated the receipt of funds and oversaw an extensive money-laundering network based out of Los Angeles, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors allege Iro and Igbokwe did all this in exchange for a cut of the stolen money.
The indictment stems from a yearslong investigation led by the FBI. Iro, Igbokwe and another Nigerian defendant named in the indictment, 39-year-old Chuks Eroha, face additional charges for attempting to destroy their cellphones when the FBI executed a search warrant in 2017 at Iro's apartment in Carson, California. Iro allegedly broke his phone in half while Igbokwe and Eroha allegedly threw their phones out a window seconds after FBI agents knocked on the apartment door. Eroha is believed to have fled to Nigeria shortly after the search.
"In the days ahead," Delacourt said, "we will be working with our foreign counterparts in nine countries to apprehend 57 additional defendants."
Editor's note: This story has been adjusted to properly reflect the dollar amounts.