Scammers in $1.2 million e-mail swindle get stiff jail terms

Two Nigerians and a Frenchman were sentenced to prison Thursday for swindling people out of more than US$1.2 million in a massive e-mail scam, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said.

Nnamdi Chizuba Anisiobi, 31, of Nigeria was sentenced to 87 months in prison, while Anthony Friday Ehis, 34, of France and Kesandu Egwuonwu, 35, of Nigeria were sentenced to 57 months.

They were sentenced in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

After being arrested in Amsterdam in February 2006, all three were extradited to the U.S.

The DOJ said all three pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, eight counts of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud.

Mail and wire fraud carry maximum possible sentences of 20 years in prison, while conspiracy has a maximum penalty of five years.

The three men executed so-called advance fee frauds.

Such frauds that have grown to alarming proportions have caused their victims to lose significant amounts of money.

To combat AFF the Advance Fee Fraud Coalition was created, on October 2008, to educate the public about the frauds as well as foster closer cooperation between police and industry.

Members of the coalition include Microsoft, Yahoo, the money-transfer agency Western Union and the African Development Bank.

The Coalition has valuable information on its Web site about how such fraudsters operate and how to avoid falling prey.

Typically, it says, such AFF cybercrooks convince someone that he or she has won a prize or been selected for a business deal with easy money to be gained,

“The only condition to obtain the gain is that the victim has to pay a small amount of money in advance. When the victim pays the fee, it will not bring him closer to receiving the gain. In fact, he only risks losing more money as the fraudster will be encouraged to re-contact the victim to request the payment of additional fees for the same transaction.”

Explanations used by the fraudsters for demanding the additional fees are creative but still credible, the Coalition’s Web site points out.

“[They] may include advance payment of bank fees for money transfers, payment of courier services to send the check, legal fees to have an attorney or notary prepare documents needed for the money transfer, or the advance payment of taxes on the prize.”

It says that fraudsters — to make their deception more convincing — have gone so far as to create fake courier companies, public notary firms, law firms, and provide them with domain names, phone numbers, email addresses to complete the deception.

“They will counterfeit trusted brands to convince the victim that the prize is plausible and real.”

It notes that enforcement against AFF is complicated as fraudsters commit their crime across borders.

In addition, while “aggregated cases add up to very large crimes, the individual cases may not be large enough to meet the threshold for initiating an international investigation and subpoenaing evidence to identify the fraudsters.”

The arrests of three AFF scamsters and their conviction, last week, offers hope that while enforcement is complex, it can still happen

According to the DOJ, the modus operandi of the three criminals was as follows: Victims were told their help was needed distributing money for charity. In exchange, victims were promised they would get a commission.

The victims were told they first needed to wire-transfer money for various fees.

In some cases, victims were sent counterfeit checks to the cover the fees, which bounced even though victims already sent money, DOJ said.

In one variation of the scam, people were sent an e-mail that purported to be from someone suffering from terminal throat cancer who needed help distributing $55 million in charity money.

The victims were told they would get a 20 percent commission that would go to a charity of their choice for their trouble.

To make the ruse seem more legitimate, the scammers sent photos of the supposed throat cancer victim, along with other fraudulent documents that ostensibly confirmed the $55 million, the DOJ said.

Microsoft and Yahoo – who are members of the Advanced Fee Fraud Coalition — are concerned about the criminals’ frequent use their free e-mail accounts to send bogus pitches.

The fraudsters have also hijacked those brands, sending e-mails that purport to be a lottery sponsored by Microsoft or Yahoo.

Ultrascan Advanced Global Investigations in the Netherlands, which has a special department dedicated to investigating advance fee frauds, estimates that $4.3 billion was lost to that type of scam in 2007.

Combating AFF has to be a collaborative effort, according to the Advanced Fee Fraud Coalition.

“Because of the international and elaborate nature of advance fee fraud … no company, no law enforcement unit, no industry can solve this problem alone,” the Coalition’s Web site says.

Strategies being pursued by the Coalition to fight this menace include: providing preventive consumer education, streamlining the process of identifying accounts used by fraudsters to communicate and obtain payments, and identifying ways of driving enforcement.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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