…From Nigeria, With Crimes
… Fears of backlash at home make Nigerian criminal gangs to expand their operations across the world
BY AYORINDE OLUOKUN/ABUJA
‘Every day is for the thief, one day is for the owner,’ a loose translation of a popular Nigerian proverb meaning no matter how long or how well a thief may think he or she has perfected the art of stealing, he or she will sooner or later certainly come to grief. This proverb that has come to be accepted as a truism by many comes to mind with the recent wave of arrests or indictment of otherwise celebrated Nigerians over alleged involvement in criminal activities in different parts of the world.
On top of the pile of the shocking arrests was 31-year-old Obinwanne Okeke, popularly known as Invictus Obi. Before the sad turn, Okeke had touted himself and has also been widely regarded as one of the leading young Nigerian men making waves in the African business scene.
He claimed to be owner of multi-dollar ventures with investments in construction, agriculture, oil and gas, telecoms and real estate under his Invictus Group.
Forbes, the popular international business magazine which prides itself as a leading source for reliable business news and financial information was so enamoured of the touted achievements of Okeke at such a young age that it listed him among its ’30 Entrepreneurs Under 30 to Watch’, to watch in Africa in 2016.
As at the time of the publication of the magazine of 2016, Okeke, who holds a Bachelor’s (BA) and a master’s (MA) degrees in International Relations and Counter Terrorism (cum laude) from Monash University, Australia, was reputed to have on his payroll 28 permanent and 100 part-time employees across nine companies.
He was also listed among 100 Most Influential Young Africans 2018 and was nominated for the prestigious All African Business Leaders Award for Young Business Leader just before he was arrested during a visit to the United States over alleged involvement in at least $11 million fraud by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI.
The Unraveling of Invictus
But rather than a business wizkid, Okeke, according to papers filed in court by the FBI, was at the head of a syndicate involved in a business email compromise scheme that targeted Unatrac Holding Limited, which is the UK Export Sales office for Mantrac Group, a United Kingdom affiliate of a U.S. heavy equipment manufacturer, Caterpillar.
FBI affidavit and court documents filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia revealed that in April 2018 the Nigerian entrepreneur and members of his group hijacked the email account of Unatrac’s chief financial officer by sending a phishing email that contained a link that supposedly would allow him to log into his Microsoft Office 365 account.
But instead, the malicious link redirected the CFO to a fake website that looked like an Office 365 log-in page. The CFO, who was not aware that the website he was directed to is fake, entered his credentials into the page, which was captured by the scammers. As stated by the FBI in the court documents, Okeke and his group then used information entered into the spoof website to access the CFO’s emails and company files. With the information in their hands, the ‘scammers’ successfully logged into the CFOs account more than 460 times during a four-week period, creating fake wire transfers and invoices using the CFO’s name, title, company logos and other information to create authentic-looking documents as well as to monitor the traffic on the altered account, according to the FBI.
“The [email redirect rules] intercepted legitimate emails to and from employees on the financial team, marked them as read, and moved them to another folder outside the inbox. These rules appeared to have been created in an attempt to hide from the CFO any responses from the individuals to whom the intruder was sending fabricated emails,” FBI said in the court documents.
Okeke and his team perfected the scam with sending of invoices and money transfer requests to fictitious companies created by them using the hijacked e-mail information sourced from it to the Unatrac’s financial team. “With full access to the account, the intruder sent fraudulent wire transfer requests from the CFO’s email account to members of Unatrac’s internal financial team. The intruder also attached fake invoices to the emails to enhance the credibility of the requests.
“Believing the wire transfer requests had come from their CFO, Unatrac finance staff processed approximately 15 fraudulent payments between April 11 and April 19, 2018. In some cases, several payments were sent to the same account.
“For example, the finance staff received and processed three invoices to Pak Fei Trade Limited: one for $278,270.66, one for $898, 451.17, and one for $1,957,100.00. In total, nearly $11,000,00 (Eleven million US dollars) was sent, all of which went to overseas accounts. “By the time, the fraud was discovered, it was too late to cancel the transfers, and Unatrac was able to recover very little of the transferred funds.”
The Bureau said during its investigation, which lasted for almost a year, it was discovered that Okeke worked with six others to carry out the scheme. FBI also said it is investigating claim by managers of Red Wing, a company in Minnesota, United States that Okeke and his team stole more than $100,000 from in early 2018, using similar schemes.
Okeke had travelled to the U.S. without prior knowledge that he was being investigated for $11 million fraud following complaints from Unatrac to FBI in June 2018 that someone had fraudulently gained unauthorised access to the e-mail account of its chief financial officer. The company had also reported that the intruders exploited the loophole to cream off $11 million from its account through a series of fake invoices.
Exposed By Google
Court documents revealed that it was downloaded tax and other company documents from the compromised email account of the CFO which was transferred to an email address: iconoclastl firstname.lastname@example.org that eventually blew the lid on Okeke and his team.
Based on confidential information that the iconoclastl email@example.com had been associated with phishing schemes, FBI had served a search warrant on Google to gain more information about the account. A scrutiny of the account, court documents, revealed emails and chat messages among the scammers, including “lists of over 600 email account passwords, as well as copies of passports and driver’s licenses that were likely stolen to be used in identity theft schemes.”
Documents sent to and from the iconoclastl firstname.lastname@example.org to account to other email addresses that contained code and other details for creating spoofed webpages that resembled legitimate sites were also discovered during the search.
The long arm of the law eventually caught up with Invictus when the FBI was able to link iconoclastl email@example.com to its owner, which was listed as firstname.lastname@example.org. The agents identified Okeke as the owner email@example.com and also found Twitter and Instagram accounts associated with him and his business, the Invictus Group.
The Nigerian entrepreneur who has remained in custody in the U.S has appeared in court twice since his arrest. This magazine also gathered that during his appearance in court on 12 August the judge had indicated that the case would be sent to a federal grand jury for consideration of a formal indictment.
Also Busted: The Nigerian 77
Nigerians had hardly got out of the shock of the indictment of Okeke for fraud when they were hit with another news of arrest of 80 fraudsters, 77 of whom are their compatriots. The suspects were arrested over involvement in wide scale fraudulent schemes targeting businesses and other vulnerable people in United States and other parts of the world also by the FBI.
FBI identified the leader of the fraud suspects as Valentine Iro, 31, and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, 38, both Nigerians. The duo, according to a press statement released in Los Angeles, California, in August by US attorney, Nick Hanna, led the fraud scheme to dupe unsuspecting victims of their money. Other suspects, according to the statement, played major roles in the alleged fraud or acted as accomplices.
At a later press conference, Nick Hanna said of 14 of the suspects have been arrested while a global hunt is on for others indicted in the fraudulent scheme: “We believe this is one of the largest cases of its kind in US history. BEC scam is used to hack email accounts to convince businesses or individuals to make payments that are either completely bogus or that should have been otherwise paid to legitimate companies. Indictments showed very specific allegations against these suspects many of whom are based in Nigeria in terms of stealing money from victims. The indictment also focuses on those responsible for enabling these fraud schemes including operatives in Los Angeles.”
The US attorney added that a total of 252 count charges ranging from “conspiracy to defraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, aggravated identity theft” had been filed against the suspects. He also said 14 federal agents, with 11 from Los Angeles where most of the crimes were reportedly committed have been arrested over suspicion of collusion with the fraud gang: “Some of the operatives facilitated the fraud schemes by opening the bank accounts where victims were directed to deposit their money. Then, these Los Angeles-based defendants laundered the stolen funds, delivering them to the scammers in Nigeria.”
He added that the suspects involved in the fraudulent scheme as well as their victims were tracked down from the US and from around the globe. “The money exchangers sent millions of dollars to Nigeria simply by using smartphone banking applications by Nigerian banks,” the Attorney said.
Paul Delacourt, the FBI assistant director, Los Angeles, added that investigation of the sweeping fraud began in 2016 with a single bank account used to receive funds stolen through a business email. According to him, if convicted, the defendants “face potential decades in federal prison.”
EFCC Goes After Suspects
Nigerians expressed anger over the ‘show of shame’ by their compatriots’ involvement in one of the largest fraud cases in America. For blogger and writer, Japheth Omojuwa , the indictment was evidence that the law will eventually catch up with any criminal, no matter his or her location: “If you are a cyber fraudster, irrespective of your location, Malaysia, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, the FBI know the colour of your passport. They know you, your friends and your relatives. If you stop now, you may escape jail. If you don’t, it’s only a matter of time.”
It also did not take long before Nigerians started identifying some of their compatriots on the FBI fraud list and even, uploading videos showing some of the suspects spraying wads of dollar notes at different social events. “We acknowledge the fact that an accusation does not mean guilt, and we hope that all the accused will be given fair and speedy trial. We also ask those accused in Nigeria to voluntarily turn themselves in to American authorities to clear their names, without which the Nigerian government would extradite them if relevant international treaties between the two governments are invoked,” the Chairman, Nigerians in the Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa said in reaction to the indictments.
The indictment of the 77 Nigerian also shifted focus to the efforts of Economic and Financial crimes Commission (EFCC) to fight graft in Nigeria. Ibrahim Magu said during the visit of the Chairman of Nigerians in Diaspora Commission to his office that the anti-graft agency has been involved in a joint operation with the FBI to clamp down on local internet fraudsters and their foreign collaborators.
He added that in one of such collaborations with FBI, tagged Operation Wire Wire, EFCC succeeded in arresting 16 suspects in Abuja. He also vowed that the anti-graft agency would collaborate with the FBI to bring suspects indicted on the fresh FBI list despite information that some of them may have relocated from the country. “It is very sad. It’s like the era of these 419ners and Yahoo Boys is coming back.I remember we worked with the FBI in Lagos and others. We carried out Operation Wire Wire. We are re-energising; we will go out and storm all their hideouts. Most of them have relocated to Ghana because the heat is on them.”
The anti-graft agency had also on 22 August told journalists that it has collaborated with the FBI to recover $314,000 and N373m ( N486m in all) from suspects in connection with the FBI probe into the list of nearly 80 Nigerians indicted for fraud.
The acting Chairman of the EFCC, Ibrahim Magu disclosed that the joint operation resulted in 28 arrests as well as prosecution and conviction of 14 suspects.
Magu, who spoke through Mohammed Rabo, Zonal Head, EFCC, Lagos, added that, the Lagos zone of the commission, had before the collaborative efforts with the FBI, launched a sustained operation on perpetrators of various computer-related frauds.
He added that the efforts had resulted in over 200 arrests, 130 convictions and recovery of a large number of exotic cars and properties suspected to have been acquired through the proceeds of crime. EFCC has also embarked on manhunt for the suspects on the FBI list and has succeeded in arresting some of them in various parts of the country.
On 5th September for instance, the EFCC also announced that in collaboration with the United States’ FBI, it had arrested Emmanuel Adedeji Oluwatosin, one of the 77 Nigerians indicted by over the large-scale scam.
Two cars – Mercedes Benz E550 and Mercedes Benz C450 -, an iPhone, laptops, a modem and SIM cards were seized from the residence of the suspect who was arrested in Kaduna State.
Zonal Head, Abdullahi Lawal told journalists that Oluwatosin and his accomplices acquired retirement account information (RAI) and personally identifiable information (PII) of multiple persons which they used to wire funds into newly-created business bank accounts. The proceeds were then converted to cryptocurrency. EFCC said preliminary investigations showed that over N1 .4 billion passed through the suspect’s accounts. Over N70 million from the amount has been traced, while efforts were on to recover the money, the anti-graft agency added.
The Benin zone of EFCC on 2 September also announced the arrest of a suspected female cyber fraudster on the FBI list. The suspect, whose identity was withheld, according to EFCC, is involved in obtaining/stealing People’s identification information which she forward to her American collaborator. The antgraft agency said the collaborator uses it to file for fraudulent tax return with the Internal Revenue Service. She received as her cut, 185 Bitcoin which by current market value, according to EFCC, is N656,371,490.
The anti-graft agency also said between January and August 2019, its operatives arrested 113 internet fraudsters in Edo, Delta and Ondo states and secured the conviction of 53 in court while ver 30 exotic cars including laptops computers, mobile phones flash, drive, internet modem and charms were confiscated from the suspects.
The Abuja zone of EFCC also announced the arrest of two of the 77 Nigerians wanted by the FBI on 3 September. The suspects, identified as Chika Augustine and Godspower Nwachukwu were arrested in Abuja, with $35,000 recovered from one of them. EFCC said it has made over 90 arrests, secured 21 convictions among others since the beginning of the year in the Abuja zone. The commission also said it recovered exotic cars and property suspected to have been acquired through the proceeds of crime which would be forfeited after convictions have been secured. The Abuja zonal office of EFCC added that it recovered N423m, $39,253 and €2,330 between January and August from fraud suspects.
Fears Over Increasing Sophistication of Nigerian Fraud Schemes
Even as the EFCC is busy going after the suspects, this magazine investigation showed that there is a general worry over the increasing sophistication of the fraudulent activities involving Nigerians. “The FBI has opened a wider window on Nigeria’s internet crime problem to the world, depicting a sophisticated operation involving people with professional web development experience and organizational process knowledge,” David Hundeyin, a Nigerian journalist and commentator noted in an article for the CNN. “These are not the crude Nigerian Princes” of the popular imagination, sitting inside crowded Lagos cybercafes sending out poorly written emails. They are highly educated and well-traveled individuals, one of whom has appeared on a Forbes 30-Under-30 list,” he added.
According to a report by Information Security Media Group, a United States based body, the scam carried out by Okeke and his team is referred to as Business Email Compromise, BEC schemes or CEO fraud. “BEC schemes often start with attackers stealing the email credentials of a top executive through phishing or other methods. Then they impersonate that executive, sending urgent messages to lower-level employees to transfer or wire money to bank accounts. In other cases, the attackers spoof a company’s business partner,” the group explained in a publication on its website.
It also quoted a report from the U.S. Treasury Department which indicated that U.S. companies are losing over $300 million a month to the BEC Scams. Another report quoted by the website indicated that several Nigerian criminal gangs in the United States have embraced the BEC schemes over the past four years. In a report published in May, 2019, a US global threat intelligence analysis company, Palo Alto Networks noted that Nigerian scammers have evolved from unsophisticated spammers to proficient users and abusers of malware and other tools used by cybercriminals worldwide. The group also noted that Nigerian gangs “are casting their nets as wide as possible in search of BEC victims, exporting their schemes to the U.S., Asia and Europe, quoting Miller-Osborn of Alto Palto Network, a security firm. “The targets include the tech industry, wholesale, manufacturing, education as well as professional and legal services,” he added.
Scott Ferguson, managing editor at Information Security Media Group said the large movement of Nigerians to other parts of the world as a result of lack of opportunities at home has contributed significantly to the rise of the cult gangs in most parts of the world. “In a desperate search to escape poverty back in Nigeria and also expand their international reach, members help each other to migrate to countries such as Italy, Spain, Brazil, Malaysia and the rest to begin a new chapter in their criminal journeys. The promise of a better life and instant wealth in Europe and America continue to drive these types of movement thus adding to the problem already on ground,” Ferguson said.
He also noted that though some of the gang members have succeeded in laundering funds derived from scam activities to establish legal businesses over the years, they continue to engage in criminal activities.
In Italy, Europe…
Nigerian criminal gangs are also active in countries like Malaysia, South Africa, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, India and Brazil where they engage in criminal activities like drug peddling and human trafficking, sometimes, working with the local mafia or criminal gangs.
In Italy for instance, members of the two of the popular cult groups associated with crimes and violence in Nigerian universities, the Confraternity of the Supreme Eiye, and the Black Axe have been variously linked with trafficking of drugs, arms and human beings by the police. “The Nigerian organizations have settled in places where mafia groups don’t have complete control,” Cesare Sirignano, a magistrate at the National Anti-Mafia Directorate was quoted as saying in a publication. He added that long as they settle the original gagsters with a cut of their drug and prostitution profits and don’t encroach on the mafia’s businesses, “the presence of the Nigerian gangs isn’t a problem for the Italian mafia groups.”
Reports indicated that the Police in Italy raided locations associated with Nigerian criminal groups in Sicily and Sardinia several times over the course of 2018. A report in June 2019 indicated that a unit of the Italian police succeeded in dismantling a Nigerian human trafficking gang whose operations span Nigeria, Libya and Italy after investigations and raids in Italian cities of Palermo, Naples, Dervio and Bergamo. The gang was allegedly involved in operation in a scheme that involved trafficking young girls from Nigeria and forcing them into prostitution in Italy.
In July, 2019, the Italian Police also announced the arrest of 19 suspected members of ‘Nigerian mafia’ in an operation carried out by over 300 officers in nine cities across northern Italy from Bergamo to Modena, Parma and Ravenna. The Police said through the operation they were able to destroy what is known within the Nigerian community in Italy as the ‘Maphite’ cult,” an acronym that stood for Maximum Academic Performance Highly Intellectuals Train Executioner.
“Among those arrested were those who held a leading role within the criminal organization. Those who decided on the new initiations, who ran the prostitution rings, who dominated by force the other criminal organizations, who ran the drug trade in the city squares,” it said. The Police added that 50 other suspects were under investigation as members of the gang. Maphite, according to the police, was founded in the 80s in Italy — along with other Nigerian gangs such as the Black Axe and the Vikings — before developing into a full-blown organized crime group in the 1990s. The police also noted that the Maphite maintains close ties to Nigeria.
The Italian Ambassador to Nigeria, Stefanou Pontesilli told journalists last year that at least 1500 Nigerians are serving jail terms for various offences in Italy. “In Italy we have about 1500 Nigerians in jail for various offences. It is a big number.
On Death Row For Drugs In Asia
Also, thousands of Nigerians are in jail in Asian countries of Bangladesh, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Thailand and India, Vietnam, Qatar, United Arab Emirate and Saudi Arabia after being convicted on offences such as drug-trafficking, credit card scam, armed robbery or infractions on immigration laws. The Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP), a human rights organization in a statement issued to mark the World Day Against the Use of the Death Penalty recently put the number of Nigerians on death row in prisons across Asian countries as a result of conviction on drug related offences at about 300.
There have also been mass arrests of Nigerians over romance scams in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
Earlier this year, a Nigerian man identified simply as Victor was discovered to be running an interstate drug racket from inside the Kapurthala Prison in Punjab. He was arrested in March this year with 2.5kg of heroin. At least, three other Nigerians have been arrested for drug offence in India in the past two months.
Nigerians On Nigerians Violence
And even in the face of condemnations of xenophobia attacks in South Africa, the issue of Nigerians involvement in criminal activities in the former apartheid enclave has also come to light. Nigerian criminal syndicates began their incursion into Johannesburg in the late 1990s and were involved in selling crack and cocaine to patrons of nightclubs where they were also employed as bouncers. Overtime, they were able to push out the indigenous gangs and take over the illicit trade.
Read the full story here: TheNEWS