A 40-year-old Nigerian, Charles Obije, is facing time in US prison for his role in an online romance scheme targeting elderly women.
According to Duluth News Tribune, Obije pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit international money laundering in US District Court in St. Paul last week.
The online media added that Obije helped launder more than $350,000 in stolen proceeds from online romance scams and other schemes, forwarding the money to family in Nigeria.
The suspect reportedly received substantial funds from no fewer than three older women who were duped into believing they were in long-running online relationships with a man, despite never meeting him in person.
The women were convinced to make numerous wire transfers — sometimes taking loans or second mortgages — to help the fictitious man with a variety of contrived expenses.
Federal prosecutors noted that Obije didn’t carry out the ploys himself. Nevertheless, he was effective in presenting local bank accounts for electronic transfers. Subsequently, he dispatched most of the embezzled money to his family in Nigeria, particularly to his father and brother.
On December 28, while trying to board a flight to Amsterdam, Obije was taken into custody at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. It was only a few weeks prior that he had a meeting with the US Attorney’s Office to discuss his status as a subject of the inquiry and the likelihood of entering into a plea deal.
At the Lincoln Park Resource Centre, where he was employed as programme director, the defendant had been working after serving as a social worker at St. Louis County. Records showed that he had put in unsuccessful attempts to secure a position in the Duluth School Board, first in 2015 and again in 2019. According to the report, that’s the defendant’s background.
Pending sentencing, Obije is out on bond, but there could be prison time in the future.
Using fake identities, the scammers in Nigeria preyed on US citizens seeking companionship through dating sites and social media. They stole others’ photos, names, and even personas to establish relationships with unsuspecting people. These scams were aimed at those seeking romantic partners or friendship.
In December 2016, an officer in the US Army who claimed he was qualified for retirement benefits but received his check in Canada connected online with a Californian lady aged 69. She told investigators about this recently.
To get the check through customs, he asked for more money after requesting $100 from the victim. The profile he used belonged to a legitimate Army member who was deployed at the time, as later uncovered by the Internal Revenue Service agents.
Between September 2017 and June 2019, the victim, who secured a loan against her house, transferred a total of $199,475 to accounts under the control of Obije and his associates. Agents tracked the transactions and discovered that the funds were frequently received by Obije, who promptly transferred the earnings to Nigeria under various labels, including “family expenses.”
After her husband of 43 years passed away, a 71-year-old woman from California was targeted by a scam. Although she had never met the man who went by the name “Morris Walter” on an internet dating platform, she told authorities she engaged in daily conversations with him and felt that they were in a committed relationship.
In the San Francisco area resides “Walter,” who claims to be an engineer for an oil company. He stated he was working on a rig overseas and required funds to cover the storage fees of oil barrels and to leave the vessel. He explained that their future could start with the aid of financial support. The woman received this information from him.
The victim started by purchasing approximately $1,800 in iTunes gift cards, eventually agreeing to wire large sums. She was directed to send funds to several people, including Obije. Investigators found that he received at least $20,000 from the woman in November and December 2018, forwarding $17,030 of it to his father in Lagos, Nigeria.
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The woman told agents she eventually cut off contact after “Walter” called her at one point and threatened to have a friend hack into her accounts if she did not send more money.
A 68-year-old Oregon victim said she communicated via phone, email and text message with a “Ken Ebe,” who said he was from the United Kingdom and worked at the Nigerian Petroleum Co. She believed she was engaged to the fictitious man, who was arranging for them to get married.
The woman said “Ebe” asked her for help in securing the release of $10 million he had stored in a vault, promising that the money would be transferred to her if she would pay the taxes and fees. Someone claiming to be an Interpol agent contacted her, providing instructions to wire the money to Twin Ports Consulting, which investigators learned was a company solely registered to Obije.
The victim sent $66,000 to the company in April 2018 — $53,070 of which Obije promptly sent to Nigeria. The woman, who was contacted by various others claiming to be an attorney in Nigeria and a banker who was arrested in the US, ended up losing more than $250,000 in total.
“When she tried to stop sending money, individuals involved in the scam threatened her and said they were watching her house and monitoring her phone calls,” the complaint states, adding that the victim had to take out a second mortgage on her house, postpone retirement and experience deteriorating health as she has been unable to afford medical treatment.
Obije, after being arrested while trying to leave the country, subsequently reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and waived an indictment process.
“To conceal the true source and destination of the proceeds, Obije and other conspirators allowed proceeds of the scheme to be deposited into US bank accounts in their names,” the agreement states. “Using these accounts, Obije and others withdrew cash and made subsequent transfers to co-conspirators, including co-conspirators located in Nigeria, to disguise the nature, source, ownership and control of the fraud proceeds.”
In total, prosecutors said Obije helped launder $356,671 from various scams, which also included business email compromise schemes. He said he did not inquire about the source of the money but “knew or should have known that the funds were the proceeds of fraud.”
Only one other party in the scheme has been publicly identified: Obije’s ex-sister-in-law, Ijeoma Chantavong, who pleaded guilty in October to the same charge and basic factual allegations.
The US Attorney’s Office indicated it would seek a prison term of up to 30 months for Obije, while he was free to “recommend whatever sentence he deems appropriate.” Judge Donovan Frank did not immediately schedule a sentencing date.
Hughes confirmed that Obije was a US citizen, which indicated he would not face deportation.