Eight Arrested in Africa-Based Cybercrime and Business Email Compromise Conspiracy
In accordance with the Justice Department’s recent efforts to disrupt business email compromise (BEC) schemes that are designed to intercept and hijack wire transfers from businesses and individuals, including many senior citizens, the Department announced Operation Keyboard Warrior, an effort coordinated by United States and international law enforcement to disrupt online frauds perpetrated from Africa. Eight individuals have been arrested for their roles in a widespread, Africa-based cyber conspiracy that allegedly defrauded U.S. companies and citizens of approximately $15 million since at least 2012.
Acting Assistant Attorney General John P. Cronan of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant of the Western District of Tennessee and Executive Assistant Director David T. Resch of the FBI, made the announcement today.
Five individuals were arrested in the United States for their roles in the conspiracy including Javier Luis Ramos Alonso, 28, a Mexican citizen residing in Seaside, California; James Dean, 65, of Plainfield, Indiana; Dana Brady, 61, of Auburn, Washington; Rashid Abdulai, 24, a Ghanaian citizen residing in the Bronx, New York, who has been charged in a separate indictment; and Olufolajimi Abegunde, 31, a Nigerian citizen residing in Atlanta, Georgia. Maxwell Atugba Abayeta aka Maxwell Peter, 26, and Babatunde Martins, 62, of Ghana and Benard Emurhowhoariogho Okorhi, 39, a Nigerian citizen who resides in Ghana, have been arrested overseas and are pending extradition proceedings to face charges filed in the Western District of Tennessee.
The indictment also charges Sumaila Hardi Wumpini, 29; Dennis Miah, 34; Ayodeji Olumide Ojo, 35, and Victor Daniel Fortune Okorhi, 35, all of whom remain at large. Abegunde had his detention hearing today before U.S. District Court Judge Sheryl H. Lipman of the Western District of Tennessee, who ordered him detained pending trial, which has been set for Oct. 9.
“The defendants allegedly unleashed a barrage of international fraud schemes that targeted U.S. businesses and individuals, robbing them to the tune of approximately $15 million,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Cronan. “The Department of Justice will continue to work with our international partners to aggressively disrupt and dismantle criminal enterprises that victimize our citizens and businesses.”
“Today, the FBI and our partners are announcing indictments as part of Operation Keyboard Warrior,” said FBI Executive Assistant Director Resch. “Following the success of Operation WireWire in early June, these indictments continue to demonstrate the FBI’s commitment to working with our partners around the globe to disrupt and dismantle criminal enterprises that target Americans and their businesses. This should stand as a warning that our work is not over, and we will continue to work together with our law enforcement partners to put an end to these fraud schemes. I want to thank all the agents and analysts at the FBI, our partners at the Department of Justice, and our Ghanaian partners at the Economic and Organised Crime Office for all their tireless work to continue to pursue this issue at every turn.”
The indictment was returned by a grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee on Aug. 23, 2017, and charges the defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to commit computer fraud, and aggravated identity fraud.
The indictment alleges that the Africa-based coconspirators committed, or caused to be committed, a series of intrusions into the servers and email systems of a Memphis-based real estate company in June and July 2016. Using sophisticated anonymization techniques, including the use of spoofed email addresses and Virtual Private Networks, the coconspirators identified large financial transactions, initiated fraudulent email correspondence with relevant business parties, and then redirected closing funds through a network of U.S.-based money mules to final destinations in Africa. Commonly referred to as business email compromise, or BEC, this aspect of the scheme caused hundreds of thousands in loss to companies and individuals in Memphis.
In addition to BEC, some of the Africa-based defendants are also charged with perpetrating, or causing to be perpetrated, various romance scams, fraudulent-check scams, gold-buying scams, advance-fee scams, and credit card scams. The indictment alleges that the proceeds of these criminal activities, both money and goods, were shipped and/or transferred from the United States to locations in Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa through a complex network of both complicit and unwitting individuals that had been recruited through the various Internet scams. Some of the defendants are also charged with concealing their conduct by, among other means, stealing or fraudulently obtaining personal identification information (PII) and using that information to create fake online profiles and personas. Through all their various schemes, the defendants are believed to have caused millions in loss to victims across the globe.
An indictment is merely an allegation and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
The FBI led the investigation. The FBI’s Transnational Organized Crime of the Eastern Hemisphere Section of the Criminal Investigative Division, Major Cyber Crimes Unit of the Cyber Division, the Legal Attaché in Accra, and International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center all provided significant support in this case, as did the Ghanaian Economic and Organised Crime Office, INTERPOL Washington, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices of the Northern District of Georgia, Western District of Washington, Central District of California, Southern District of New York, and the Northern District of Illinois.
Senior Trial Attorney Timothy C. Flowers of the Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra L. Ireland of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee are prosecuting the case, with significant assistance from the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs.