FBI hunts Nigerians over $70 million theft

12 Nigerians were charged in the United States (US) for the theft of over $70 million. Apart from the dirty dozen, another Nigerian was jailed for 30 years on Friday, after a seven-day trial in Adams County, Colorado.

Uto Essien, 45, was jailed for his role as the ringleader in a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud. He was convicted of four felony counts — two counts of forgery and one count each of theft by receiving and violating the Colorado Organised Crime Control Act.

“Essien will be deported once he gets out of prison,” the Colorado Attorney-General’s office announced on Friday.

Attorney-General John Suthers described Essien’s operations as: “One of the most expansive and heinous mortgage fraud rings we’ve seen in Colorado.”

According to reports in the U.S. media, including the Star Tribune, Washington Examiner, San Antonio Express-News and Denver Business Journal, at the weekend, 11 other Nigerians have been charged in federal courts in the Twin Cities with fraud for a counterfeit credit card scam that allegedly netted them more than $650,000. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested eight on Friday and searching for three others.

Those arrested were immediately charged with using the bogus cards to withdraw the cash from more than 170 Automated Teller Machines (ATM) in the metro area.

According to the criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court, the defendants obtained personal information about customers of Capital One Bank from an online source based in the Ukraine.

With the stolen information in hand, they allegedly manufactured the counterfeit cards. They were then able to obtain new personal ID numbers from the bank, which allowed them to withdraw $652,205 from the teller machines.

According to the complaint, some of the stolen money was converted into cashier cheques and used to purchase vehicle parts or vehicles with salvage titles; the vehicles were then shipped to Nigeria, and sold at inflated prices.

Some of the defendants allegedly recruited Nigerian residents in Minneapolis to buy vehicles at auto auctions, giving them cash to make the purchases.

According to a U.S. Secret Service affidavit, one of the defendants bragged about how he could not “get caught conducting his illegal activity” because he was “very good at covering his tracks”.

Charged with one-count of bank fraud and one-count of access device fraud are Adekunle Kayode Ayeni, 27; those whose ages were not known – Yewande Mariam Sholebo, Adewale Alba Alli, Olayemi Lateef Banjoko, Idowu Ayinla Sadiq, Abiodun Banjoko and Oyetoyin Oseni Atobatele, all of Fridley; along with Bashiru Adelumola Fowoshere, 36, and Titilayo Abidemi Fowoshere, (unknown age), both of Ramsey; Oriyomi Enitan Olowosago (unknown age), Brooklyn Park and Ajibola Alli Fowoshere, 34, address unknown.

The Nigerian Compass gathered from the Director of FBI, United States Department of Justice, Washington D.C., Mr. Robert Mueller that among the agency’s most wanted Nigerians, is a 36-year-old man identified as Odowa Roland Okuomose a.k.a Roland Saah.

A statement by Mueller, says: “Okuomose is wanted for his alleged involvement with a telemarketing company that ran a fraudulent lottery. The telemarketing company operated from British Columbia, Canada, under a variety of names from at least July of 2006 through October of 2007. The telemarketing company obtained several hundred thousand dollars from victims across the United States. The victims received a letter in the mail stating the recipient was the winner of a lottery prize. The telemarketing company asked victims to pay a fee to receive their monetary prize. None of the victims received any money.

“On October 5, 2007, a federal arrest warrant was issued by the United States District Court, Central District of California, after Okuomose was charged with wire fraud and mail fraud. On November 6, 2007, Okuomose was arrested in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada for those charges. Okuomose was released from custody on bail and subsequently violated the terms of his bail conditions. Therefore, in addition to an outstanding United States warrant, there has also been a Canada-wide warrant issued for his arrest.”

The FBI is also investigating a fraud ring accused of bilking several banks and customers — including San Antonio-based Texas insurance and financial services company USAA and the former chief of staff of U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond — of at least $44 million.

One person is in custody in San Antonio and agents are looking for a Nigerian from Dallas featured on the television show: “America’s Most Wanted”.

The suspects are believed to have posed as customers to fraudulently withdraw money from bank accounts, including one at USAA that was tapped for $98,000.

“This case is linked to a larger $44 million case in Virginia,” said Erik Vasys, spokesman for the FBI in San Antonio. “It’s pretty significant.”

Last week, a Houston-based Nigerian; Adedeji Omarici Oyekan, appeared in federal court in San Antonio, charged with financial institution fraud and conspiracy to commit financial institution fraud. The charges are related to the $98,000 stolen from the USAA account. He was ordered held without bond.

Authorities are still looking for Tobechi “Tobe” Onwuhara, the alleged mastermind. The suspect, whose story was exclusively reported in the Nigerian Compass, last October, is under investigation in Seattle, where he once lived. He allegedly led a ring of people from Nigeria that accessed online databases to steal people’s personal information for use in defrauding banks, records show.

The ring targets victims who have a large balance in a home equity line of credit, and uses the stolen personal information to initiate money transfer to “mule” bank accounts.

Mule accounts are opened by people who agree to let the ring use the accounts for a cut of the stolen money.

As the scam spreads across the U.S., President Barack Obama is said to have received floods of complaints. And in California, where it has caused a financial carnage, state lawmakers have sent several bills that crack down on mortgage fraud to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk.

Among the complainants is the California District Attorneys Association, which is pushing for new felony penalties for mortgage fraud. The group sponsored a bill now before the governor, Senate Bill 239, by Sen. Fran Payley, D-Agoura Hills. It would create a specific category of felony mortgage fraud, which the DA’s group calls: “One of the linchpins in the demise of the California real estate market and the related crises in the financial sectors.”

In the USAA’s case, Oyekan, Onwuhara and other ring members allegedly used the information to call USAA and pretend to be a customer. The ring provided enough biographical information about one targeted victim to convince USAA to wire transfer $98,000 from that customer’s account to mule accounts at Citibank in New York and Woodforest Bank in Houston, court records show.

“They targeted a number of identified HELOC, home equity line of credit, accounts and were successful on one,” Assistant U.S. Attorney, Tom McHugh, said, referring to accounts at USAA: “I think we identified at least four accounts. They were in one phase or another of trying to access.”

Onwuhara has a past that involves credit card fraud, and authorities say he researched and tested his skills until he was successful. Court records say he splits his time between Miami and Dallas, but could be in Atlanta, New Jersey or Canada.

With the stolen proceeds, authorities allege, he lived in a $600,000 home in Miami and rented a condo in Dallas for $4,000 a month, according to a segment featuring him on “America’s Most Wanted”.

According to the Washington Examiner’s Web site, one of his victims was Robert Short, former chief of staff for Sen. Thurmond. “America’s Most Wanted” reported that Onwuhara flashed up to $50,000 at strip clubs, drove a Bentley, a Maserati and a Rolls-Royce Phantom. He even owned his own recording studio and started his own rap label, called SWAT Up Entertainment.

The Washington Examiner reported yesterday that five of the 11 people suspected of operating the more than $60 million bank fraud scam have pleaded guilty.

Of the five, three have fingered Onwuhara, 29, as the conspiracy’s ringleader.

In October, the then American President, George Bush, labelled Onwuhara as one of the FBI’s most wanted and Onwuhara’s picture was pasted on the FBI’s Web site just under Osama Bin Laden.

Among those who pleaded guilty and fingered Onwuhara was his girlfriend Precious Matthews, who, according to court documents, collected nearly $1 million between June 2007 and July 2008 from the scheme.

Of that cash was $110,000 taken from an account owned by Short, who lives in Alexandria, Matthews admitted in court documents. Brandy Anderson, who has also pleaded guilty, admitted to receiving $25,000 from Short’s account. Abel Nnabu admitted to receiving $25,000 from the Short swindle in his guilty plea as well.

On December 9, 2007, Short discovered $280,000 missing from his United States Senate Federal Credit Union account. All five of the suspects who have pleaded guilty said in court documents it was Onwuhara who called the credit union and impersonated Short to steal the cash.

The discovery eventually led investigators to uncover Onwuhara’s massive scam.

The cash was frequently laundered through bank accounts in Korea, China and Singapore as well as through Onwuhara’s car-dealing brother-in-law, Daniel Orjinta, in Nigeria. Orjinta, who pleaded guilty last month, admitted to providing Nigerian bank accounts to Onwuhara and taking a percentage of the illegally obtained funds.

Federal officials also said in court documents that Orjinta would funnel funds into high-end cars, which he shipped to Onwuhara in the United States.

One Ezena Onyedebelu also pleaded guilty and admitted to obtaining $267, 000 during the one-year scam.

Onwuhara remains at-large and is believed to be in Canada or Nigeria, federal officials say.

In Essien’s case, the convict was indicted with nine foreigners on charges connected with 34 real estate deals in Denver, Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties.

The arrest of the 10 capped a two-year investigation involving Suthers’ office, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, the district attorney for the 17th Judicial District and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Between spring 2004 and spring 2007, Essien and his co-defendants allegedly used false invoices and shell corporations to obtain $10.9 million in mortgages, keeping $1.1 million of those funds, according to the indictment.

Essien’s shell companies were Essien and Co. Realty Ltd. and EU Enterprise.

Those indicted allegedly used shell buyers to acquire houses at inflated prices, telling mortgage lenders that the houses had gotten improvements they actually hadn’t. Lenders were deceived into paying for the improvements, the indictment alleged.

Loans were often obtained by overstating buyers’ income and understating debts, the indictment alleged. With many of the properties, mortgage payments never were made, and the homes quickly were foreclosed on, according to the indictment.

Essien acted as the real estate broker in the deals, the indictment alleged. Prosecutors said he was directly involved in purchasing four properties with total mortgages of nearly $1.4 million and kept $140,000 from those deals, according to the indictment.

According to Suthers’ office, here is the disposition of other cases in the investigation:

•Scott Hinkley pleaded guilty on December 12, 2008, to violating the Colorado Organised Crime Control Act, a class-two felony, and forgery, a class-five felony. He was sentenced on February 12 to 10 years in community corrections.

•Bradly Decker pleaded guilty on July 24 to theft by receiving, a class-three felony. He is scheduled to be sentenced on September 24.

•Idara Ekiko pleaded guilty on August 5 to computer crime, a class-three felony. She is scheduled to be sentenced on September 30.

•Cheri Decker pleaded guilty on August 26 to violating the Colorado Organised Crime Control Act, a class-two felony; theft, a class-three felony; and forgery, a class-five felony. She is scheduled to be sentenced on October 22.

•Jennifer Wosley pleaded guilty on June 16, 2008, to computer crime, a class-three felony. She was sentenced on August 4, 2008, to eight years probation, to 200 hours community service, and drug and alcohol evaluation and treatment.

•Jessica Caplan was convicted of forgery, a class-five felony, during a jury trial. She is scheduled to be sentenced on October 17.

•Heather Etuk pleaded guilty on August 4, 2008, to forgery, a class-five felony. She was sentenced on September 29, 2008, to five years probation, $30,900 restitution, a 90-day suspended jail sentence and 100 hours of community service.

•Jessica Decker pleaded guilty on October 7, 2008, to obtaining a financial device with a false statement, a class-one misdemeanour. She was sentenced on October 7, 2008, to two years probation and $88,000 restitution.

•Enoh Etuk pleaded guilty on July 24 to theft, a class-one misdemeanour. She was sentenced on July 24 to two years’ probation, and ordered to pay $133,781 restitution.