GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — Seven Africans have admitted being part of a global fraud network that used online dating sites to reach potential victims, the U.S. Department of Justice said Friday.
Six Nigerian men and a South African woman pleaded guilty this week to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, department spokesman Peter Carr said in an email.
They're among 21 defendants charged in federal court in Gulfport, Mississippi.
The investigation started in September 2011, when a Biloxi woman told police that a man she'd met online through a dating website had sent her cellular phones to repackage and reship, according to documents filed with Wednesday's and Thursday's guilty pleas.
She let Homeland Security investigators use her email account to correspond with the man. Investigators learned that the conspiracy involved more than 200 people worldwide, led out of South Africa and Nigeria, according to court papers. They got warrants for 360 email accounts, obtaining about a million messages.
The Homeland Security Investigations office in New Orleans was involved, according to the news release.
The conspirators used email scripts to gain victims' affection and get them to send money and participate in other fraud schemes, according to the "statement of facts" backing up the guilty pleas.
It said those included depositing and then wiring someone else money from $29 million in checks and other "monetary instruments" that turned out to be counterfeit, repackaging and forwarding merchandise bought with more than 39,000 stolen credit card numbers, and using hundreds of thousands of dollars of counterfeit postal and private carrier shipping labels. The U.S. Postal Service alone lost $300,000, the statement said.
The group also took over victims' bank accounts and used several layers of "e-mules" to launder money, according to the documents.
Those who pleaded guilty this week were identified as Rhulane Fionah Hlungwane, 26, of South Africa, and Nigerians Gabriel Oludare Adeniran, 30; Olusegun Seyi Shonekan, 34; Taofeeq Olamilekan Oyelade, 32; Olufemi Obaro Omoraka, 27; Anuoluwapo Segun Adegbemigun, 40; and Adekunle Adefila, 41. All but Adefila also pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit identity theft, access device fraud and theft of government funds, according to the news release.
Four of the 14 others charged in Mississippi have pleaded guilty, one is scheduled for trial Jan. 30 on new charges, two have died, two are awaiting extradition from Nigeria and two remain fugitives, Sheila Wilbanks, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Gregory Davis in Jackson, said in an email.