Three spammers sentenced in US for advance fee fraud

Victims lost US$1.2 million to fraudsters who operated out of the Netherlands

Two Nigerians and a Frenchman were sentenced to prison Thursday for swindling people out of more than US$1.2 million in a massive e-mail scam, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

Nnamdi Chizuba Anisiobi, 31, of Nigeria was sentenced to 87 months in prison, while Anthony Friday Ehis, 34, of France and Kesandu Egwuonwu, 35, of Nigeria were sentenced to 57 months. They were sentenced in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

After being arrested in Amsterdam in February 2006, all three were extradited to the U.S. The DOJ said all three pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, eight counts of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud. Mail and wire fraud carry maximum possible sentences of 20 years in prison, while conspiracy has a maximum penalty of five years.

The three men executed so-called advance fee frauds. Victims were told their help was needed distributing money for charity. In exchange, victims were promised they would get a commission that would go to the charity of their choice, the DOJ said.

The victims were told they first needed to wire-transfer money for various fees. In some cases, victims were sent counterfeit checks in order to the cover the fees, which bounced even though victims already sent money, DOJ said.

In one variation of the scam, people were sent an e-mail that purported to be from someone suffering from terminal throat cancer who needed help distributing $55 million in charity money. The victims were told they would get a 20 percent commission that would go to a charity of their choice for their trouble.

To make the ruse seem more legitimate, the scammers sent photos of the supposed throat cancer victim, along with other fraudulent documents that ostensibly confirmed the $55 million, the DOJ said.

Advance fee frauds have become so prevalent that law enforcement and private companies have undertaken new steps to stop the scams.

In October 2008, the Advance Fee Fraud Coalition was created to educate the public about the frauds as well as foster closer cooperation between police and industry. Members of the coalition include Microsoft, Yahoo, the money-transfer agency Western Union and the African Development Bank.

Microsoft and Yahoo are particularly concerned about advance fee frauds since the criminals often use their free e-mail accounts to send bogus pitches. The fraudsters have also hijacked those brands, sending e-mails that purport to be a lottery sponsored by Microsoft or Yahoo.

Ultrascan Advanced Global Investigations in the Netherlands, which has a special department dedicated to investigating advance fee frauds, estimates that $4.3 billion was lost to that type of scam in 2007.

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