CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Andrew Murray, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, announced today federal charges against four individuals, for operating as “money mules” in two separate business email compromise schemes.
A business email compromise scheme, or BEC, is a sophisticated scam, often targeting businesses involved in wire transfer payments. The fraud is carried out by compromising and/or “spoofing” legitimate business email accounts through social engineering or computer intrusion techniques, to cause employees of the victim company (or other individuals involved in legitimate business transactions) to transfer funds to accounts controlled by scammers. In addition to targeting businesses, BEC scams also often target individual victims, convincing victims to make wire transfers to bank accounts controlled by the scammers.
U.S. vs. Okwara
On September 17, 2020, a federal grand jury sitting in Charlotte returned a criminal indictment against Chukwudi Michael Okwara, 40, of Charlotte, for his involvement in a BEC scheme that defrauded at least six companies of approximately $2 million.
According to allegations contained in the indictment, beginning in November 2018, Okwara, who also goes by “Collins Bird” and “Larry Eugene Coleman,” used fake documents to open multiple “money mule” bank accounts. Money mule accounts are bank accounts used by fraudsters as a pass-through means of moving fraudulently obtained funds. As alleged in the indictment, Okwara used the money mule accounts to receive and launder the proceeds of business email compromise (BEC) scams perpetrated on the victim companies. Okwara also allegedly used false identities and conducted financial transactions with the fraudulently obtained proceeds in order to conceal their origins.
Okwara is charged with 27 counts of money laundering, which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years and a $500,000 fine per count; five counts of conducting financial transactions with illegal proceeds, which carry a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and a $250,000 fine per count; two counts of submitting false documents to banks, which carry a maximum prison term of 30 years and a $1,000,000 fine per count; and two counts of aggravated identity theft, which carry a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison, per count, to be served consecutively to any other sentence imposed.
Okwara had his initial appearance today before U.S. Magistrate Judge David C. Keesler. Okwara’s next court hearing is set for October 15, 2020, in Charlotte.
U.S. vs. Johnson et al.
A second indictment related to BEC fraud charges Linda Dianne Johnson, 70, of Charlotte, Wanda Jackson Barker, 71, of Athens, Texas, and Olayinka Agboola, 54, of Chicago, Illinois, with conspiracy to commit money laundering. Johnson is also charged with two counts of conducting financial transactions with illegal proceeds.
The indictment was returned on September 16, 2020, and was unsealed earlier this week. According to allegations in the indictment, Johnson, Barker, and Agboola operated as money mules and conspired to launder at least $575,000 derived from a fraudulent BEC scheme. The indictment alleges that the co-conspirators tricked the United States Department of State and a non-profit agency into wiring proceeds into bank accounts controlled by Johnson. Upon receipt of the fraud proceeds, Johnson, Barker, and Agboola executed financial transactions for the purpose of enriching themselves and their co-conspirators.
Johnson is set to appear in court in Charlotte on October 22, 2020. Barker’s initial appearance has been set for November 9, 2020. Agboola has not been arrested yet.
The money laundering conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Johnson faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each charge of conducting financial transactions with illegal proceeds.
The charges in the indictments are allegations and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law.
In making today’s announcement, U.S. Attorney Murray thanked the investigating efforts of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the FBI, and U.S. Department of State, Office of the Inspector General, which led to the indictments.
Assistant United States Attorney Matt Warren is in charge of the prosecution against Okwara. Assistant United States Attorneys Caryn Finley and Graham Billings are handling the prosecution against Johnson, Barker and Agboola.