You might find a Nigerian prince in your email, but a London courtroom is about the last place you’d expect to find someone accused of such an online scam.
Benard Okorhi, 39, is fighting that label as hard as he’s trying to stop his extradition to the United States, where he’s wanted for what the U.S. Department of Justice alleges is his part in a complex US$15-million fraud.
He sat quietly in the prisoner’s box, often shaking his head in disbelief at the allegations detailed by a federal Crown that he was part of a elaborate online scheme covering the gamut of the notorious cyber-scams targeting American businesses and lonely hearts.
If you think the allegations sound like the infamous Nigerian prince emails that show up in your online junk folder, you’d be pretty close.
Since February, he’s been in custody, just months after he arrived in London as a refugee from Nigeria.
What Superior Court Justice Jonathon George must decide is whether there’s enough evidence to ship Okorhi to Memphis, Tenn., to join six others — some from Nigeria and Ghana, some from the U.S. — already in custody for a trial slated for next month.
Three other men have been arrested in Ghana and are awaiting extradition. There are four others, including Okorhi’s brother, who remain at large.
Federal Crown Adrienne Rice told George there’s “more than ample evidence” to send Okorhi south.
“The person before the court is the individual the Americans are seeking,” she said.
Central to evidence for extradition is a photograph that Rice said came from Okorhi’s passport, which was attached to an email sent from one account to another linked to Okorhi.
George must be convinced that the photo is of Okorhi, the defence said, or else consider that maybe Okorhi’s identity was stolen as part of the deceit.
To demonstrate how easy it might have been to use Okorhi as a dupe, on a recess at the hearing, defence lawyers Gord Cudmore and Perrie Douglas were able to take the photo and make a fake Facebook profile for Okorhi within minutes.
The case, dubbed Operation Keyboard Warrior by American authorities, targeted an alleged Africa-based conspiracy dating back to 2012.
The scale of the alleged fraud is massive. The indictment alleges the fraud was based in Africa where the suspects tapped into the servers and email systems of a Memphis real estate company in 2016. They used fake email addresses and other means to find large transactions of money and would email other businesses to re-direct money to them, American authorities contend.
Along with the real estate scams, the group allegedly also took part in “romance scams, fraudulent-check (cheque) scams, gold-buying scams, advance-fee scams and credit card scams,” dating back to 2012, said a Western District of Tennesee news release from June.
Both money and goods, such as cellphones and construction materials, were shipped from the U.S. to Ghana, South Africa and Nigeria through both victims and people recruited by the alleged fraudsters to help them. Often they used fake identifications to make social media profiles.
One of the people arrested in Ghana is Maxwell Peter, 26, who is described in news reports as “Sakawa King of Tamale” and was known for his extravagant lifestyle. He had just bought a record label and was signing local musicians at the time of his arrest.
“Sakawa” refers to Internet fraudsters in Africa who tout their wealth and use supernatural rituals they believe will make their schemes work.
None of the charges, including against Peter, have yet gone to trial.
The request for Okorhi’s extradition is based on three connections the federal Crown said can be proven and make out the fraud charges.
One of them involved a woman, Rice said, who had met a man named Henry Miller – a made-up paramour — online in early 2014. Miller told the woman he was involved in construction work in Ghana and he needed phones and laptops.
Miller connected the woman to Mark Richards, who would co-ordinate the delivery of the goods. Rice told George that Richards was Okorhi, who was using an email partially composed of the Mark Richards name.
Richards convinced the woman to send $1,950, plus five cellphones to an address in Ghana, with a promise she would be repaid.
She never received any funds back and couldn’t contact Richards again.
The photograph the Crown relied on came from the Richards’ email account and was sent to Okorhi’s personal email in 2016, according to the Crown. Rice said the photo came from a Nigerian passport, although no travel document was shown to the judge.
Rice said the photo was of Okorhi. And his personal email was linked to his Facebook page.
There was also correspondence between the Richards’ email account and Babatunde Martins, 62, another accused arrested in Ghana. The Richards’ emails were signed with the name “Benard.”
Other emails allegedly showed Okorhi and others discussing various online scams and advice not to send more than $9,900 in any wire transaction so as not to raise any suspicions from American investigators.
Rice said Okorhi is also tied to a fake company that was used to draw money from the Tennessee real estate business.
Another woman was involved in an online relationship with a man not related to the case. His identify had been hijacked by the fraudsters, who made their own dating profile and began to ask the woman for money.
The Crown alleged more than $512,000 from the woman was transferred to a company called Cool Ben Royal Link with Okorhi a director. The woman was first a victim, but then began to work with the alleged fraudsters and passed on thousands of dollars from an unsuspecting man.
Cudmore argued that George can’t send Okorhi to the U.S. unless he is convinced the man in the alleged passport photo was the man in court. And, he said, there is no way to ascertain whether Okorhi is part of the plots or if his identity was stolen to further the crimes. The link to the Richards’ email isn’t enough, he said, and anyone can make a Facebook profile.
“Why would he be sending an email to himself?” Cudmore said, referring to the email that included his photograph.
The links to the alleged fraud are too tenuous, he said, to establish Okorhi knew about the schemes. The judge has “to infer he is knowingly participating in a fraud.”
“There is no evidence, none to show he is aware of any fraudulent scheme is being carried out,” Cudmore said, adding the judge was being asked to speculate.
Rice said while there is more than enough evidence, the threshold for extradition is low, and “mere similarity of a name can be sufficient.”
The case returns to London court with a decision on Sept. 18.