March 13, 2023

US authorities arrest Nigerian man over romance scam, money laundering

US authorities arrest Nigerian man over romance scam, money laundering

A 40-year-old Nigerian man, Charles Emeka Obije pleaded guilty in the United States District Court in St. Paul to conspiracy to commit international money laundering he made from online romance scams and other schemes.  

Obije, a resident of Duluth, Minnesota, helped launder more than $350,000 in stolen proceeds from online romance scams to his family in Nigeria, according to Duluth News Tribune.

The US court documents revealed that Obije accepted huge funds from at least three older women whom he duped into believing they were in long-running online relationships with a man, despite never meeting him in person.

According to the report, Obije’s victims were swayed to make several wire transfers — sometimes taking loans or second mortgages — in order to help the fictitious man with a variety of forced expenses.

The suspect was not indicted of perpetrating the schemes, federal prosecutors said he was able to offer domestic bank accounts for the wire transfers. He, then, sent the bulk of the stolen funds to his father and brother in Nigeria.

Duluth News Tribune said Obije was arrested at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport while attempting to board a flight to Amsterdam on December 28, 2022.

He had met just weeks earlier with the U.S. Attorney’s Office regarding his status as a target of the investigation and the possibility of reaching a plea agreement.

The defendant is a former St. Louis County social worker who most recently worked as program director at the Lincoln Park Resource Center.

He ran unsuccessfully for the Duluth School Board in 2015 and also applied for a vacancy in 2019.

Obije, who is free on bond pending sentencing, could face prison time. He referred questions to defence attorney John Hughes.

“I can’t talk right now other than to say that Charles is a longtime member of the nonprofit community and takes full responsibility,” Hughes said.

The court documents revealed: “The scams were perpetrated from Nigeria, targeting U.S. citizens who were looking for romantic partners or friendship on dating websites and social media platforms.

“The scammers would create profiles using fake names, locations, images and personas — sometimes stealing others’ identities to cultivate relationships with prospective victims.

“A 69-year-old California woman told investigators she met a man online in December 2016 who said he was an officer in the U.S. Army and was eligible to receive retirement benefits, but his check had mistakenly been sent to Canada.

“He first asked the victim for $100 to help acquire the check, then continued to seek additional funds to help get the check past customs. Internal Revenue Service agents later discovered the profile was based on an actual Army member who was deployed overseas.

“That victim, who took out a loan secured by her house, ended up transferring $199,475 to accounts controlled by Obije and co-conspirators between September 2017 and June 2019.

“Agents traced the transactions, finding that Obije on several occasions received the funds and then quickly wired the profits to Nigeria, using descriptions such as “family expenses.”

“A 71-year-old California woman fell prey to the scam a few months after her husband of 43 years died. She described meeting a man named “Morris Walter” on an online dating website, and told investigators she spoke with him daily. Despite never seeing him, she indicated she was in a relationship with him.

“Walter” told the woman he lived in the San Francisco area and worked as an engineer for an oil company. He said he had gone to work overseas on a rig and needed money both to pay for the storage of oil barrels and to get off the ship. Sending the money, he promised, would allow them to begin their life together.

“The victim started by purchasing approximately $1,800 in iTunes gift cards, eventually agreeing to wire large sums. She was directed to send funds to several people, including Obije. Investigators found that he received at least $20,000 from the woman in November and December 2018, forwarding $17,030 of it to his father in Lagos, Nigeria.

“The woman told agents she eventually cut off contact after “Walter” called her at one point and threatened to have a friend hack into her accounts if she did not send more money.

“A 68-year-old Oregon victim said she communicated via phone, email and text message with a “Ken Ebe,” who said he was from the United Kingdom and worked at the Nigerian Petroleum Co. She believed she was engaged to the fictitious man, who was arranging for them to get married.

“The woman said “Ebe” asked her for help in securing the release of $10 million he had stored in a vault, promising that the money would be transferred to her if she would pay the taxes and fees. Someone claiming to be an Interpol agent contacted her, providing instructions to wire the money to Twin Ports Consulting, which investigators learned is a company solely registered to Obije.

“The victim sent $66,000 to the company in April 2018 — $53,070 of which Obije promptly sent to Nigeria. The woman, who was contacted by various others claiming to be an attorney in Nigeria and a banker who was arrested in the U.S., ended up losing more than $250,000 in total.

“When she tried to stop sending money, individuals involved in the scam threatened her and said they were watching her house and monitoring her phone calls,” the complaint states, adding that the victim had to take out a second mortgage on her house, postpone retirement and experience deteriorating health as she has been unable to afford medical treatment.”