LOS ANGELES (Channel 6 News Online) — Ten Americans have been indicted on federal charges of running a so-called advance fee scheme that targeted elderly victims in the United States with promises of millions of dollars in inheritances – but only if they paid money upfront to facilitate the transfer of the promised bequests.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California on Monday released the first details about the cases, even though three of the defendants were already charged by a federal grand jury in 2009. The lead defendant, 25-year-old Claudio Uche Dibe of Gardena, California, had fled to Canada after learning of the investigation, but was extradited back to the United States on February 4.
Dibe, who is a Nigerian national, allegedly orchestrated the domestic part of the scheme, which sent spam emails to thousands of potential victims. The senders of the emails falsely claimed to have control of millions of dollars in inheritance money in Nigeria, and they falsely told victims they would receive inheritance money if the victims paid a variety of advance fees for taxes or documentation.
Dibe and his associates allegedly claimed to be attorneys, bankers, diplomats or other government officials, all of which was designed to convince victims they were dealing with legitimate professionals.
The indictment alleges that Dibe and his associates lured victims by initially demanding relatively small amounts of money. But once the victims paid the modest amounts, they were asked to wire increasingly larger amounts – as much as $35,000, according to the court documents.
This so-called Nigerian 419 scam – which references to the section of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with fraud – allegedly bilked at least two dozen victims, most of whom were elderly, who collectively lost more than $1.5 million.
Three of the ten defendants – 25-year-old Bright Amesi, 25-year-old Briceson Loving, and 24-year-old Erika Fletcher – were arraigned on Monday morning in a U.S. District Court, where they pleaded not guilty and were ordered to stand trial later this year.
Fletcher, along with Amesi and Loving, were named in an 11-count indictment returned in February by a grand jury. That indictment, which charges a total of nine defendants, includes an email allegedly sent by one of the fraudsters in which he complains that one of the victims “is insisting that he does not have more money, though I believe he will be able to come up with money. I believe that … he will pay big money, which is what we are all after.”
The investigation into the 419 scam was initiated by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) after one of the fraudsters allegedly impersonated an IRS agent to convince a victim to pay fictitious taxes.
All ten defendants in the case could face life in prison, if they are found guilty on all counts. Charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud each carry a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison.
Dibe has been charged with 15 counts of wire fraud, while Amesi and Loving have each been charged with 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
The other seven, including Fletcher, have each been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and ten counts of wire fraud. They were identified as 28-year-old Ezenwa “Larry” Ihenachor of Gardena, 22-year-old Devon London of Los Angeles, 26-year-old Ellis Allen of Los Angeles, 25-year-old Wynterrose Rogers of Brooklyn, 25-year-old Lanisha Andrews of Brooklyn, and 43-year-old Veronica Littlejohn of Gardena.
Seven of the defendants have pleaded not guilty.