Three people have pleaded guilty to charges related to spam e-mail that promised U.S. victims millions of dollars from an estate and a lottery, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In one scenario, the defendants sent e-mails purporting to be from an individual suffering from terminal throat cancer who needed assistance distributing approximately US$55 million to charity, the DOJ said.
The three defendants, two from Nigeria and one from Senegal, sent spam e-mail to thousands of potential victims, in which they falsely claimed to control millions of dollars located abroad, the DOJ said in a press release. The fraud victims lost $1.2 million by giving the defendants advance fees, the DOJ said.
Pleading guilty in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York were Nnamdi Chizuba Anisiobi, whose aliases include Yellowman, Abdul Rahman, Michael Anderson, Edmund Walter, Nancy White, Jiggaman and Namo, age 31, of Nigeria; Anthony Friday Ehis, also known as John J. Smith, Toni N. Amokwu and Mr. T, age 34, of Senegal; and Kesandu Egwuonwu, also known as KeKe, Joey Martin Maxwell, David Mark and Helmut Schkinger, age 35, of Nigeria.
Anisiobi pled guilty to one count of conspiracy, eight counts of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud. Ehis pled guilty to one count of conspiracy and five counts of wire fraud. Egwuonwu pled guilty to one count of conspiracy, three counts of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud.
The maximum penalty for mail and wire fraud is 20 years in prison. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
A fourth defendant, Lenn Nwokeafor, fled to Nigeria and was subsequently arrested by the Nigerian Economic & Financial Crimes Commission on July 27, 2006. He is being held by the Nigerian authorities pending extradition to the U.S., the DOJ said.
Playing on Sympathy
In the throat cancer scheme, the defendants offered to give a 20 percent commission to the victim, or a charity of his or her choice, in exchange for the victim's help. The defendants would send a variety of fraudulent documents, including a "letter of authority" or a "certificate of deposit," making it appear that the promised funds were available, as well as pictures of an individual claiming to suffer from throat cancer, the DOJ said.
Defendant Anisiobi allegedly telephoned victims, disguising his voice to give the impression that he was suffering from throat cancer.
After obtaining their victims' trust, the defendants asked them to wire-transfer payment for a variety of advance fees for legal representation, taxes and additional documentation. The victims then received nothing back, the DOJ said.
In some cases, if the victims said they could not afford to pay the advance fees, the defendants would send them counterfeit checks, supposedly from a cancer patient, to cover those fees. Many victims deposited the checks and then drew on them to wire-transfer the advance fees. When the checks did not clear, the victims suffered substantial losses, the DOJ said.
"Online scam artists should be on notice that we will continue to work closely with our international partners to ensure that there are no safe geographic boundaries for committing these crimes," Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher of the DOJ's Criminal Division said in a statement.
The investigation was initiated by Dutch law enforcement authorities, who notified the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which opened its own investigation. The three who pled guilty were arrested in Amsterdam on February 21, 2006.