LOS ANGELES – A Carson man who was a central figure in an international fraud and money-laundering network that targeted $25 million through a variety of frauds – including romance scams and elder fraud – was sentenced today to 135 months in federal prison.
Valentine Iro, 34, the lead defendant in a 252-count federal grand jury indictment that charged 80 individuals, was sentenced by United States District Judge R. Gary Klausner. Judge Klausner also ordered Iro to pay $1,397,553 in restitution.
Iro pleaded guilty in October 2020 to one count of conspiracy to engage in money laundering. He has been in federal custody since August 2019.
From October 2014 to August 2019, Iro helped lead a massive international criminal network that conspired to defraud individuals and companies all over the world and then to launder an intended amount of more than $25 million in intended ill-gotten gains. Known globally to fraudsters and their middlemen, Iro communicated primarily through encrypted messaging applications and phone calls. He worked to connect the fraudsters, who were committing various online scams, with money movers and bank accounts that could be used to receive and launder money from victims.
Iro knew that the scams included business email compromise (BEC) fraud, romance scams, and other fraud schemes. A native of Nigeria, Iro at times used code words and Nigerian pidgin – an English-based dialect used across that nation – to avoid detection by law enforcement. The fraudsters perpetrating these criminal activities largely were located outside the United States.
As part of the scheme, Iro negotiated his “cut” of the illegal proceeds that he would keep for himself for organizing the receipt and laundering of funds. He then would select or find a bank account, or assist in opening bank accounts, to be used to receive victims’ money. Iro collected bank account information for banks in the Los Angeles area and in other cities and nations often in preparation for requests to come from co-conspirators.
For romance scams and elder fraud, Iro sometimes used bank accounts under his personal control. For BEC frauds, if a bank account with a specific business name was required to trick a business-victim into making a payment, Iro often coordinated with “money movers” to open accounts that could receive funds obtained, according to court documents. In addition to making the fake business name mirror the name of a legitimate company, members of the conspiracy routinely filed fictitious business name statements with the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder’s Office that were presented to banks when the fraudulent accounts were opened.
Once a victim deposited funds into a bank account or a money service account, Iro coordinated with others to further launder the funds. Members of the conspiracy sometimes wired funds to other bank accounts under their control; in other cases, they simply withdrew funds as cash or negotiable instruments such as cashier’s checks.
When stolen funds were withdrawn as cash, the conspirators frequently used illicit money exchangers to move funds overseas, generally avoiding transferring the funds directly through banking institutions. To do this, Iro coordinated the transfer of a victim’s funds from a fraudulent bank account they controlled to U.S. bank accounts belonging to illicit money exchangers. Those money exchangers, in turn, used a Nigerian banking application to transfer other funds in naira (₦), the currency of Nigeria, from Nigerian bank accounts they controlled to the Nigerian bank accounts specified by Iro. This method was used to transfer millions of dollars to Nigerian co-conspirators without directly transferring funds overseas.
“This case is part of our multiprong approach to protect Americans from attempts to steal their money through elaborate scams being perpetrated around the world,” said United States Attorney Martin Estrada. “Through lies and deceit, these fraud artists try to fleece businesses and individuals, including the elderly and vulnerable. This case demonstrates that we can and will identify, charge, and prosecute fraudsters and their money laundering accomplices, no matter how far across the world their criminal network may stretch.”
“Defendant Iro masterminded this international money laundering scheme for years and, in the process, stole money and identities from hundreds of victims, including some who were led to believe they were in a romantic relationship only to learn they were being scammed,” said Donald Alway, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office. “As we continue to investigate this case and look for fugitives, we urge Americans to learn how to identify BEC, romance, and other schemes, which have increased dramatically in recent years.”
Federal prosecutors have secured 21 convictions in this case so far. Additional defendants have been arrested in Nigeria, and others are at large.
The FBI Cyber Task Force led this investigation. The Justice Department also recognizes substantial assistance from the United States Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service; the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office; the Orange County District Attorney’s Office; the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office; the San Bernardino Police Department; the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; and the California Franchise Tax Board.
Many of the FBI’s Legal Attachés provided assistance throughout this investigation, as did the Office of International Affairs in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and foreign authorities around the world.
Multiple private sector partners were also instrumental throughout this investigation, including Palo Alto Networks, Flashpoint, and the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance (NCFTA).
Assistant United States Attorney Sue J. Bai of the Cyber and Intellectual Property Crimes Section is prosecuting this case.
The FBI has issued a report on the rise of BEC schemes, and published a recap of Operation WireWire, which was an international effort to disrupt international BEC scams. An FBI public service announcement that warns of the dangers of BEC schemes encourages businesses to “trust but verify.”