Hawks and US secret services nab alleged online scammers linked to R7.3m fraud

A fraud network headquartered in Johannesburg that defrauded a US-based corporation out of R7.3 million was busted in raids around the city on Thursday.

Investigators from the Hawks major commercial crimes team and US Secret Service agents apprehended seven persons suspected of being part of a Nigerian organized criminal network that specialized in fraud.

Hawks spokesperson Brig Thandi Mbambo said the suspects were four men and three women aged between 25 and 42.

The suspects are expected to appear in the Palm Ridge specialised commercial crimes court on Friday on charges of fraud and money laundering.

TimesLIVE understands the women are SA nationals whose bank accounts were used by their boyfriends, who are Nigerian nationals, to funnel money swindled from their US-based victims.

“The suspects’ apprehension emanates from an extensive investigation relating to business email compromise fraud scam allegations where approximately $500,000 (about R7.3m) was swindled from a US-based entity in April 2020 and thereafter transferred into different SA bank accounts,” said Mbambo.

TimesLIVE understands Hawks investigators sifted through bank records going back to 2018 to untangle the interconnected web of accounts linked to fake identities and money mules spanning continents.

“In the early hours of March31  2022, a multi-disciplinary approach driven operation that was simultaneously coordinated at several premises around Johannesburg by the Hawks’ serious commercial crime investigation and tactical operations management section resulted in the arrest of seven suspects,” Mbambo said.

Sources with insight into the investigation said the syndicate allegedly used a business email compromise (BEC) scam to defraud a US-based mental health institute.

BEC scams are sophisticated scams which usually target third party vendors to gain access to business email accounts after which they divert payments to bank accounts of money mules.

The Sunday Times previously quoted Prof Gary Warner, University of Alabama at Birmingham director of research in computer forensics, who said the Nigerian organised crime syndicate Black Axe was responsible for “just about” all the BEC scams he had come across in the extensive research he did to help US law enforcement agencies crack down on this type of fraud.

TimesLIVE sources said the Johannesburg-based syndicate diverted the money it allegedly stole to romance scam victims who acted as unwitting money mules.

The romance scam victims believed the source of the millions funnelled into their accounts was legit and they were asked to forward the money to accounts held by alleged syndicate members who used fake online identities to lure lonely women.

The syndicate allegedly bought luxury vehicles with the proceeds of their crimes.

SA and US law enforcement authorities have jointly cracked down on Nigerian fraud syndicates in SA over the past two years.

Eight Black Axe leaders were arrested in Cape Town and Johannesburg last year. and according to insurance investigators, this has led to a massive drop in the group’s activities and similar cybercrimes. The eight face extradition to the US, where they will face fraud charges for stealing more than R100m from romance scam victims there.

Hawks investigators have also secured the conviction of Nigerian fraudster Abdul Olatunji, who is expected to be sentenced on April 4 for BEC fraud.

Hawks head , Lt-Gen Godfrey Lebeya commended the work of the multi-disciplinary team which led to the arrests on Thursday.

“Organised criminal groups should know law enforcement agencies are collaborating on an international level to dismantle criminal networks”, said Lebeya.


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