80 suspects arrested in massive business email scam takedown

Police say the mainly-Nigerian network was responsible for the attempted theft of $46 million.

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A total of 80 individuals suspected to be part of a massive Business Email Compromise (BEC) and romance scam network have been charged with multiple arrests made.

Last Thursday, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) unsealed a 252-count federal grand jury indictment against the defendants, which prosecutors say "participated in a massive conspiracy to steal millions of dollars through a variety of fraud schemes and launder the funds through a Los Angeles-based money laundering network."

The majority of those accused are Nigerian nationals. In total, 14 arrests have taken place across the US, but the remainder is believed to be abroad and mainly in Nigeria, and therefore have not yet been apprehended. 

US prosecutors claim that the suspects were involved in BEC fraud, romance scams, and fraudulent activities specifically designed to target the elderly. 

Businesses worldwide were targeted, both large and small. Legal firms, specifically, seemed to be a favored target of the alleged scam artists. 

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Some of the victims lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. US law enforcement says that at least $6 million has been stolen, together with the attempted theft of a further $40 million.

The lead conspirators acted as brokers of fraudulent bank accounts used to facilitate the transfer of stolen cash. Court documents claim that fake business statements -- which mirrored the names of legitimate companies -- were filed with the Los Angeles County Registrar on a regular basis to allow the bank accounts to be opened. 

While scammers lured victims into handing over their funds, a team of money mules would withdraw money from the bank accounts or launder the proceeds through wire transfers and cashier's checks. These members of the elaborate network would receive a cut of the profits in return for their efforts. 

In many cases, the stolen funds would be sent abroad and a Nigerian banking application was utilized to transfer millions of dollars and convert the currency into Nigeria's local Naira. 

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Each of the 80 defendants named is being charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money, and aggravated identity theft. Others are also facing accusations of fraud and money laundering.

Seven are being charged as the ringleaders and operating illegal money transmitting businesses. When a search warrant was executed in 2017, three of the suspects attempted to destroy their phones when law enforcement came knocking. 

The FBI is leading the investigation and has been assisted by the US Postal Inspection Service, Homeland Security Investigations, the US immigration and customs offices, the Ventura County District Attorney's Office and the California Franchise Tax Board.

Back in 2017, the FBI issued a warning to the enterprise, highlighting the danger of BEC scams. Law enforcement says that in 2018 alone, US businesses lost $1.3 billion to email-based fraud. 

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"Today's announcement highlights the extensive efforts that organized criminal groups will engage in to perpetrate BEC schemes that target American citizens and their hard-earned assets," said the FBI's Paul Delacourt. "Billions of dollars are lost annually, and we urge citizens to be aware of these sophisticated financial schemes to protect themselves or their businesses from becoming unsuspecting victims."

Earlier this week, the DoJ charged five suspected criminals believed to have swindled US military personnel and veterans out of millions of dollars.

Prosecutors say victims had their personal data stolen by one of the defendants and this data was used to access military benefit payment portals. 

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