Joint US-Nigeria cyber scams crackdown arrest hundreds

The operation has led to 167 people arrested in Nigeria, 74 in the United States, many of them Nigerian nationals, 18 in Turkey and 15 in Ghana. Reuters File Photo

Nigerian and US authorities have said that nearly 300 people had been arrested in a months-long global crackdown on online scams to hijack wire transfers from companies and individuals.

"Operation reWired" broke up multiple groups, many parties of transnational criminal gangs, running the so-called business email compromise (BEC) schemes by which they steal money being used in payments.

The schemes, which the US Justice Department said originated in Nigeria, have spread worldwide and led to some USD 1.3 billion in losses reported worldwide in 2018, double the previous year.

A "sweep" operation from May through to September, with Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), "focused on dismantling the most significant cyber criminal enterprises," FBI legal attache Ahamdi Uche told a joint press conference in Lagos on September 10.

The operation has led to 167 people arrested in Nigeria, 74 in the United States, many of them Nigerian nationals, 18 in Turkey and 15 in Ghana.

Adding other arrests in France, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Britain and Kenya, a total of 281 people have been arrested and USD 3.7 million seized in Operation reWired, the Justice Department said.

"Our efforts in coordinating the EFCC/FBI joint operations in Nigeria recorded tremendous successes" against "the infamous Yahoo Yahoo boys," a nickname given to Nigerian Yahoo mail fraudsters, said the EFCC's director of information, Mohammed Abba said.

"We have also recovered from the arrested fraudsters the sum of USD 169,850 (153,000 euros) as well as the sum of 92 million naira (230,000 euros)," Abba said.

"Cooperation is the backbone to effective law enforcement; without it, we aren't as strong or as agile as we need to be," said FBI Director Christopher Wray. "Through Operation reWired, we're sending a clear message to the criminals who orchestrate these BEC schemes: We'll keep coming after you, no matter where you are."

Africa's most populous country is saddled with an infamous reputation for online fraud. Numerous figures associated with criminal activity are often lauded in popular culture and enjoy close ties with politicians.

Nigerian authorities in May arrested a popular local musician known as Naira Marley -- controversial for praising internet fraudsters in his songs.

A spokesperson for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari told local reporters "the government would not stand in the way of the justice system," and that ordinary Nigerians "should not be tagged 'fraudulent people' for the misdeeds of a few."

Business email compromise fraud involves numerous variants of scams. In some, the perpetrator poses online and in emails as an official of a company or their international client and direct other employees to initiate money transfers or payments to the criminal's account.

In others, they hijack an employee's email to achieve the same end. The FBI began working closely with several countries including Nigeria's anti-graft agency in May 2019 to tackle online fraud networks active in the United States.

In 2018, US agencies received 20,373 BECs reporting "losses of over more than USD 1.2 billion," Uche said, leading to "an uptake of focused law enforcement activity." 

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