A Japanese woman met a person online in March 2016 who said he was a U.S. Army captain based in Syria.
They quickly became close, exchanging messages over email. She thought she was in a romantic relationship with the man, who called himself Terry Garcia.
Over the course of 10 months, the Japanese woman lost more than $200,000, sending money to accounts in Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.
This romance scheme is just one example of a massive international fraud conspiracy detailed in a 252-count federal grand jury indictment unsealed on Thursday. Authorities have charged 80 defendants with involvement in the scheme. Fourteen people were arrested on Thursday morning – 11 of those in the Los Angeles area – and many of the rest are believed to be based in Nigeria.
"Who can forget the famous Nigerian Prince scam in which the fraudster claims to have millions of dollars stuck in Nigeria and needs the victim to help get the money out of the country?" Nicola Hanna, the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, told reporters. "Well, over the years, those fraud schemes have evolved and become much more complex and sophisticated."
"We believe this is one of the largest cases of its kind in U.S. history," Hanna added.
According to the prosecutors, the defendants pursued a wide range of schemes, including preying on businesses by hacking into their accounts and representing themselves as vendors who were owed money.
The two lead defendants, Valentine Iro and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, are accused of facilitating fraudulent payments by acting as "brokers of fraudulent bank accounts."
They allegedly "collected bank accounts, fielded requests for bank account information, provided that information to co-conspirators around the world, and laundered the money obtained from victims – all of this in exchange for a cut of the money stolen from victims of various fraud schemes," according to prosecutors. Iro and Igbokwe are accused of illegally transferring at least $6 million.
The lead defendants allegedly registered fake businesses with L.A. County authorities so that they could open bank accounts under those names. Once money was deposited into an account, they would often quickly withdraw the money in cash or cashier's checks, or transfer it to another account that was part of the scheme, prosecutors say. Eventually, the funds would be sent to Nigeria.
The Japanese woman, identified as F.K. in court records, "was and is extremely depressed and angry about these losses, and is on the verge of bankruptcy," the complaint states. "She began crying when discussing the way that these losses have affected her."
F.K. spoke little English and would use Google Translate to read Garcia's emails and translate her responses.
According to the complaint, shortly after they started communicating, he told F.K. that he had discovered a bag of diamonds in Syria. He said that he was injured and trying to send them to her, and F.K. received details from multiple other people purportedly trying to arrange the transfer. She was told that she'd need to pay hefty fees for a "non-inspection tag," a "final accreditation fee" and a "diplomatic consignment tax." She told federal officials that she made as many as 40 payments to Garcia over the course of the 10 months.
F.K. even traveled to Los Angeles in October 2016, after she was told that there was a problem with a bank releasing her funds.
The federal officials warn that fraud schemes like these are on the rise, and urge people to warn their friends and family members who might be vulnerable.