Feds arrest 74 people, alleging real estate and wire fraud
Federal law enforcement authorities have arrested 74 people in this country and abroad, accusing them of participating in a wire fraud scam whose victims included real estate attorneys and settlement service providers.
The government was able to seize $2.4 million of alleged ill-gotten gains as well as disrupt and recover $14 million in fraudulent wire transfers as part of Operation Wire Wire, an operation undertaken by the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
But that is just a drop in the bucket in the dollars lost to what the federal government classifies as business email compromise schemes and its variant, email account compromise. Victims have reported over $3.7 billion stolen since the Internet Crime Complaint Center started keeping track of these frauds in late 2013.
Of the 74 people arrested, 42 were in the U.S., 29 were in Nigeria and one each in Canada, Mauritius and Poland.
"I want to thank the FBI, nearly a dozen U.S. Attorneys' Offices, the Secret Service, Postal Inspection Services, Homeland Security Investigations, the Treasury Department, our partners in Nigeria, Poland, Canada, Mauritius, Indonesia and Malaysia, and our state and local law enforcement partners for all of their hard work," said U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a press release. "We will continue to go on offense against fraudsters so that the American people can have safety and peace of mind."
There were 23 individuals charged in the Southern District of Florida, including eight people in an indictment unsealed June 4 for laundering $5 million from a Seattle corporation, various title companies and a law firm, the Department of Justice press release said. The indictment does not contain the victims' names.
Sun Title Agency was one of the victims in the Florida indictments, said Tom Cronkright, the owner of the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company. In total, the fraud spanned eight different countries and included the use of "mules" — people paid to move the stolen funds, as well as money laundering to hide this money.
"Though our efforts to recover the money we learned how focused and determined they are to keep the money they have stolen," said Cronkright, who is also CEO of CertifID, a wire fraud prevention service he formed after being victimized.
Previously Cronkright sued the alleged perpetrators in a civil case in order to recover the stolen money.
In a separate instance, Gloria Okolie and Paul Aisosa, both Nigerian nationals residing in Dallas, were charged in an indictment filed on June 6 in the Southern District of Georgia. The alleged victim was a real estate closing attorney. The pair were accused of sending the lawyer a spoofing email posing as the seller and requesting that proceeds of a real estate sale in the amount of $246,000 be wired to Okolie's account. The attorney experienced $130,000 in losses after the bank was notified of the fraud and froze $116,000, the DOJ press release said.
Okolie and Aisosa were charged with laundering approximately $665,000 in illicit funds.
A third case where a real estate sale was involved was in Massachusetts where the accused and the alleged co-conspirators gained access to an attorney's email account. They spoofed the account and sent messages to a person involved in the transaction in attempt to have them transfer nearly $500,000, which was intended to be used for payment, to a shell account belonging to a money mule recruited and controlled by the defendant.
"They are definitely following transactions," said Michael Barone, a New York attorney whose firm handles real estate closings and has been targeted for similar frauds but was not one of the victims of any of the cases brought. "They are being much more personable in their emails, much more knowledgeable in their emails, as opposed to in the past when they just said 'we made a mistake please wire it here.' Now they're copying your signatures so it looks alike. It really looks like they're assuming your identity."