80 Scammers Charged in International Romance Fraud Conspiracy

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80 Scammers Charged in International Romance Fraud Conspiracy

By Caleb Danziger

You’ve probably heard about or even received the emails from people who claim to be stranded in desperate situations and need money immediately wired to them. Some of them take the time to befriend their victims first and spark supposed romances with them. Some people think those scams are in the past, especially since cybercriminals have plenty of more advanced methods to try.

But, they’re still happening. In what’s believed to be one of the largest cases like this in U.S. history, federal authorities charged 80 people in an international conspiracy that included numerous types of fraud, including romance-based scams.

How Did the Criminals Operate?

Information about the case reveals that the two lead defendants acted as brokers of fraudulent bank accounts. They provided bank account details or signed up for new accounts, then sent that information to their network of global co-conspirators, receiving a cut of the money scammed from victims in exchange. The pair also registered bogus businesses in Los Angeles County to set up bank accounts under those names.

After receiving money from a victim, they’d typically transfer it quickly into another account. Nigeria was the destination for the funds.

Law enforcement officials arrested 14 people, all but three of them in Los Angeles. They’re still on a worldwide hunt for the others. The two lead defendants, named as Valentine Iro and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe allegedly transferred at least $6 million during the span of the schemes and attempted to get millions more.

U.S. authorities say at least 77 of the 80 people charged are native Nigerians. The Nigerian government has since responded. It said it wouldn’t stand in the way of justice served but reminded the public that the actions of lawbreaking Nigerians do not reflect the nation overall.

A Substantial Impact

One of the victims, called F.K. in court records, was a Japanese woman who lost $200,000 from the scams. She borrowed money from family members and friends after falling for a story concocted by a man who identified himself to her as U.S. Army Captain Terry Garcia. Through multiple emails to her, he described serving in Syria how he needed her help in a plan to smuggle diamonds out of the country.

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F.K. is reportedly extremely depressed and angry about what happened to her. She’s also on the verge of bankruptcy. The victim believed she was in a romantic relationship with the man. And, because she spoke little English, F.K. used Google Translate to keep communicating with Garcia via email. She was in tears while describing the ramifications of the scams.

What Makes Online Scams Different?

Romance scams are only one kind of fraud orchestrated by these criminals. They also hacked into the accounts of businesspeople and posed as vendors seeking money from unpaid bills. Online schemes represent only one broad category of fraud.

For example, when people see individuals or entities defrauding the government, they can come out as whistleblowers and file qui tam lawsuits against the alleged lawbreakers. There are also frauds associated with fake charities, as well as people who pose as repair professionals and claim to help people recover from home damage after hurricanes.

Scams that operate solely or mostly online differ from those mainly carried out over the phone or through door-to-door interactions. That’s because the Internet makes it so easy to target people in other states or countries and customize the attacks to make them maximally authentic.

For example, some hackers craft the content to appear from the CEO of a company. They may even research that person’s travel records to indicate urgency. Then, the scam email might direct someone from accounting to transfer money and say something like “I can’t do it now myself since I’m about to board a plane to Sydney.”

Phishing scams are rampant online, too. They typically involve emails that include things like the graphics, fonts and phrases typically used by a legitimate company. But, they ask people for sensitive details that upstanding companies shouldn’t, such as their passwords.

How Can You Recognize Online Scams?

A statement about this gigantic fraud scheme from the U.S. Department of Justice mentions that the scammers targeted individuals, many of whom were elderly, as well as businesses. Some of the companies were law firms.

There are several hallmark characteristics of online scams, including:

The sender insists on the recipient taking urgent action
Misspelled words or poor grammar
Links in emails that redirect to unexpected websites
Emails with suspicious attachments
Messages with generic content
Emails that demand substantial amounts of money and/or asking for bank details

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The list above is not exhaustive, but it contains many of the red flags associated with online scams. In conclusion, the best protection against them is to think carefully and never act hastily.

By Caleb Danziger, who writes about cloud computing, blockchain and AI. In addition to writer for technology websites like TechAcute and Tech Web Space, Caleb also co-writes the blog The Byte Beat with his friend, Jenna.

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