Nigerian Men Sanctioned by U.S. For Business Email Compromise, Romance Fraud

By Samuel Rubenfeld

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned six Nigerian men for their roles in cybercriminal schemes to steal more than USD 6 million from businesses and individuals across the U.S.

The sanctioned individuals pursued Americans through global threats known as business email compromise (BEC) and romance fraud, according to the Treasury. They manipulated victims to gain access to usernames, passwords and bank accounts to further the schemes, the Treasury said. The romance fraudsters used online tools to engage their targets, the Treasury said. 

“Cybercriminals prey on vulnerable Americans and small businesses to deceive and defraud them,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. “As technological advancement increasingly offers malicious actors tools that can be used for online attacks and schemes, the United States will continue to protect and defend at-risk Americans and businesses.”

The six Nigerians were sanctioned under the Treasury’s authority to designate people or companies engaged in malicious cyber-enabled activities, including those relating to significant misappropriation of funds for private financial gain, the department said. The designations were coordinated with the U.S. Justice Department, the Treasury said.

BEC scams target businesses via email, typically to authorize wire payments by impersonating a company executive. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received nearly 24,000 BEC complaints in 2019 with adjusted losses of almost USD 1.8 billion, it said in its annual report. The IC3 began tracking BEC scams in 2013, and losses have increased every year since, the FBI said in April.

These scams generated more than USD 300 million a month in 2018, a threefold increase from the amount reported in 2016, the Treasury’s Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN) said in July 2019. The number of suspicious activity reports (SARs) received by FinCEN describing BEC incidents doubled to more than 1,100 per month in 2018, up from about 500 per month in 2016, FinCEN said at the time. 

The top three corporate sectors typically targeted in BEC scams are manufacturing and construction; commercial services; and real estate, according to an advisory issued by FinCEN in July 2019.

Source: treasury.gov

Richard Uzuh, one of the six Nigerian men sanctioned Tuesday, worked with an accomplice  from early 2015 to September 2016 to send emails to victims as though they were coming from a true corporate executive, and would request and receive wire transfers from the businesses’ accounts, the Treasury said. He often targeted upwards of 100 companies in a day, and a loss of more than USD 6.3 million can be attributed to his BEC scheme, according to the Treasury.

Uzuh was indicted in Nebraska in October 2016, along with another Nigerian man, Adewale Aniyeloye, on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy. More than 40 companies were victimized by the BEC fraud scheme, according to court records filed in the case. They used a dozen free email accounts to conduct the scheme, the court records show. Attempted losses through BEC schemes attributed to the two men “easily exceed” USD 30 million in 2015 alone. Aniyeloye pleaded guilty in November 2018, and he was sentenced in February 2019 to 96 months behind bars. Aniyeloye is scheduled for release in 2023, according to prison records. 

Four of the other men sanctioned Tuesday were linked to Uzuh by the Treasury. Alex Ogunshakin, Felix Okpoh, Nnamdi Benson and Abiola Kayode all provided Uzuh with bank accounts that were used to receive fraudulent wire transfers, according to the Treasury. They were indicted in August 2019 on a charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, prosecutors announced Tuesday.

Kayode received NGN 1.5 million (USD 3,800) in funds laundered through transfers from Nigerian automobile dealer Sarumi Babafemi, according to Nigerian media reports. Babafemi, whose trial was stalled in January due to the absence of a prosecution witness, according to Nigerian media reports, was accused by anti-corruption authorities of laundering NGN 207.1 million (about USD 530,000) between 2013 and 2018.  

Micheal Olorunyomi, the sixth man sanctioned Tuesday, worked with an accomplice from September 2015 to June 2017 to create fictitious profiles on dating websites, posing as individuals looking for love, the Treasury said. He developed online relationships with victims to either obtain funds from them directly or to use their bank accounts to funnel fraudulently obtained money, according to the Treasury. 

A romance scammer creates the illusion of a close relationship to manipulate or steal from a victim. The FBI received nearly 19,500 complaints of confidence or romance fraud in 2019, with losses totaling more than USD 475 million, the second-highest financial loss tracked by the IC3 that year behind BEC scams, according to its annual report. 

Losses attributed to Olorunyomi’s romance fraud scheme exceed USD 1 million, the Treasury said. 

Olorunyomi was initially indicted in March 2018 alongside Onome Ijomone, who pleaded guilty in August 2019 and was sentenced in January 2020 to five years in prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. A superseding indictment was filed in November 2019, and the case was unsealed last month. Ijomone is scheduled to be released in 2022, prison records show.

“The six individuals designated today manipulated their victims to gain access to their sensitive information and financial resources. The U.S. will not tolerate such gross misuse of technology,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

Kortney Casanova contributed to this report.