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Feds arrest dozens in sweeping action against hackers targeting wire transfers

Including those targeting real estate transactions

The “Nigerian prince” who emailed you and offered millions of dollars in exchange for helping them get money out of the country may have just been arrested on wire fraud charges.

The federal government announced Monday that it conducted a massive sweep and arrested nearly 75 people who allegedly participated in schemes designed to intercept and hijack wire transfers from businesses and individuals, including those involving real estate transactions.

The arrests are part of six-month coordinated law enforcement effort conducted by the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Treasury, the Postal Inspection Service, and several other agencies.

The operation was funded and overseen by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and also involved district U.S. attorneys, local district attorneys, foreign governments, and other agencies.

Over the last two weeks, the agencies arrested 74 people total: 42 in the United States, 29 in Nigeria, and three in Canada, Mauritius and Poland.

According to the agencies, the operation, which was called “Operation Wire Wire,” also resulted in the seizure of nearly $2.4 million, and the disruption and recovery of approximately $14 million in fraudulent wire transfers.

The joint agency action targeted “Business Email Compromise” schemes, wherein hackers attempt to gain access to the email accounts of employees who have access to company finances, businesses working with foreign suppliers, or businesses that regularly perform wire transfer payments.

The schemes also target individual victims, including real estate buyers, by impersonating someone involved in a real estate transaction and convincing them to make wire transfers to bank accounts controlled by the hackers.

In recent years, there has been an increase in hackers targeting real estate transactions and stealing funds from both unsuspecting buyers and companies alike.

Two years ago, the Federal Trade Commission and the National Association of Realtors issued a warning to people interested in buying a home about scammers who were posing as real estate agents, Realtors and title insurance companies to steal consumers’ closing costs.

Last year, the American Land Title Association said that the previous warning from the FTC and NAR didn’t do enough to protect consumers and the group wanted the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to issue a warning of its own.

Then, the FTC and NAR issued another warning, but that didn’t stop the scammers from stealing from unwitting buyers.

But now, the government believes that it has busted up several of the organizations behind these actions, many of which allegedly involve criminal outfits that originated in Nigeria and later spread throughout the world.

“Fraudsters can rob people of their life's savings in a matter of minutes. These are malicious and morally repugnant crimes. The Department of Justice has taken aggressive action against fraudsters in recent months, conducting the largest sweep of fraud against American seniors in history back in February. Now, in this operation alone, we have arrested 42 people in the United States and 29 others have been arrested in Nigeria for alleged financial fraud,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said.

“And so I want to thank the FBI, nearly a dozen U.S. Attorneys' Offices, the Secret Service, Postal Inspection Services, Homeland Security Investigations, the Treasury Department, our partners in Nigeria, Poland, Canada, Mauritius, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and our state and local law enforcement partners for all of their hard work,” Sessions continued. “We will continue to go on offense against fraudsters so that the American people can have safety and peace of mind.”

According to the agencies, the effort, which began in January 2018, targeted hundreds of business email scammers. 

Among those arrested as part of the sweep are the following (details provided by the DOJ):

  • Following an investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service, 23 individuals were charged in the Southern District of Florida with laundering at least $10 million from proceeds of BEC scams, including eight people charged in an indictment unsealed last week in Miami. These eight defendants are alleged to have conspired to launder proceeds from numerous BEC scams, totaling at least approximately $5 million, including approximately $1.4 million from a victim corporation in Seattle, as well as various title companies and a law firm.
  • Following an investigation led by the FBI with the assistance of the IRS Criminal Investigation, Gloria Okolie and Paul Aisosa, both Nigerian nationals residing in Dallas, Texas, were charged in an indictment filed on June 6 in the Southern District of Georgia. According to the indictment, they are alleged to have victimized a real estate closing attorney by sending the lawyer a spoofing email posing as the seller and requesting that proceeds of a real estate sale in the amount of $246,000 be wired to Okolie’s account. They are charged with laundering approximately $665,000 in illicit funds. The attorney experienced $130,000 in losses after the bank was notified of the fraud and froze $116,000.
  • In another case being prosecuted in the District of Massachusetts, a 25-year-old Fort Lauderdale, Florida man was indicted in federal court in Boston on June 6 on one count of money laundering conspiracy. According to the indictment, the individual was part of a conspiracy that engaged in wire fraud. It is alleged that in early 2018, the defendant’s co-conspirators gained access to email accounts belonging to a Massachusetts real estate attorney and sent emails to recipients in Massachusetts that “spoofed” the real estate attorney’s account in an attempt to cause the email recipient to transfer nearly $500,000, which was intended to be used for payment in connection with a real estate transaction, to a shell account belonging to a money mule recruited and controlled by the defendant.
  • In another case being overseen by the Western District of Pennsylvania, Taiwo Musiliudeen Idris was arrested by law enforcement authorities in Nigeria and charged with one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. According to the criminal complaint affidavit, Taiwo Musiliudeen Idris conspired with Ismail Shitu, Nathanael Nyamekye, Adnan Ibrahim, and Akintayo Bolorunduro to launder over $411,000 in real estate settlement proceeds that were fraudulently obtained from a BEC. The BEC targeted the sellers of residential property in Maryland, along with their real estate company, and the settlement company.

Additionally, law enforcement agents executed more than 51 domestic actions, which included search warrants, money mule warning letters, and asset seizure warrants totaling nearly $1 million. 

The agencies define “money mules” as people who were employed by the fraudsters to launder their ill-gotten gains by moving the funds into other accounts that are difficult to trace. According to the agencies, 15 alleged “money mules” were charged for their roles in the schemes.

“This operation demonstrates the FBI’s commitment to disrupt and dismantle criminal enterprises that target American citizens and their businesses,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said. “We will continue to work together with our law enforcement partners around the world to end these fraud schemes and protect the hard-earned assets of our citizens. The public we serve deserves nothing less.”

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