Eight cyber-criminals have been arrested in an Africa-based “cybercrime and business email compromise (BEC) conspiracy” for stealing $15 million dollars related to real estate transactions from businesses and individuals in Memphis.
Of the five cyber-criminals arrested in the U.S. three were citizens from Mexico, Ghana and Nigeria, and two were Americans. U.S. officials are seeking extradition for three others who have been arrested in Ghana. It is not known at this time whether the three foreign nationals were living in the U.S. legally.
Benard Okorhi, a Nigerian national who arrived in Canada in February 2018, claiming refugee status, is also in extradition proceedings for his alleged role in the cyber-conspiracy.
Four others believed to be part of the fraud ring, including Okorhi’s brother, remain at large.
Working with international law enforcement, the Department of Justice launched “Operation Keyboard Warrior” in an effort to thwart “business email compromise (BEC) schemes.” By hacking computer servers and using phony email messages, the cyber-criminals diverted funds from businesses and individuals to Africa:
Using sophisticated anonymization techniques, including the use of spoofed email addresses and Virtual Private Networks, the co-conspirators identified large financial transactions, initiated fraudulent email correspondence with relevant business parties, and then redirected closing funds through a network of U.S.-based money mules to final destinations in Africa. Commonly referred to as business email compromise, or BEC, this aspect of the scheme caused hundreds of thousands in loss to companies and individuals in Memphis.
Memphis-based Crye-Leike realty company was targeted but assures customers that their system was not compromised in any way. The company has been aggressive in addressing any suspected scams. In fact, it was Crye-Leike’s cooperation with federal authorities that helped identify the cyber criminals:
The firm contacted the FBI because its agents and customers were receiving suspicious emails, then helped authorities in their investigation,
The real estate industry has been hit hard by money email-transfer fraud schemes. As reported by The Columbus Dispatch, “[a]ccording to FBI data, nearly $969 million was ‘diverted or attempted to be diverted’ from home-purchase transactions in fiscal year 2017. That figure is up explosively from 2016′s $19 million.”
The National Association of Realtors has issued warnings and advisories to its members, state realty associations and consumers about this type of cybercrime and to ignore any emails or other instructions to transfer funds related to real estate deals through email.
Several of the Africa-based defendants are also charged with operating romance scams, fraudulent-check scams, gold-buying scams and credit card scams.
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Chris Alto is an investigative reporter at The Tennessee Star.