Bad news: Your Nigerian prince is under indictment

Call it the end of an era in Internet scams. The Department of Justice unveiled a 252-count indictment against dozens of Nigerian nationals for money laundering and fraud. But how many of these were princes?

U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said the defendants allegedly used various “sophisticated” online fraud schemes to prey upon businesses, elderly individuals and people who may have been susceptible to a romance-related scam.

“We believe this is one of the largest cases of its kind in U.S. history,” Hanna told reporters at a press conference Thursday. “We are taking a major step to disrupt these criminal networks.” …

Paul Delacourt, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, said the defendants defrauded victims out of around $10 million and attempted to steal at least another $40 million.

This was not your father’s Nigerian-prince scam, in other words. That classic scam originated in the earliest days of the Internet. An e-mail would arrive declaring that a dispossessed prince in Nigeria needed help accessing his assets in the US. All it would take is a partnership with an American citizen to release untold wealth, which the prince would gladly share with his benefactor. The scam was so obvious, and so ubiquitous, that “Nigerian prince” became a cliché shorthand for clumsy frauds.

This operation was both broader and more sophisticated. Usually con artists have a particular repertoire and modus operandi. This outfit decided to go big, and the FBI warned that this is the new normal for Internet fraud:

The defendants involved in the case were charged with attempting to defraud individuals of millions of dollars through the use of business email compromise (BEC) and online romance scams, in addition to other schemes meant to target the elderly.

The investigation is being led by the FBI, with each of the defendants charged with “conspiracy to commit fraud, conspiracy to launder money, and aggravated identity theft,” according to Justice Department. Some defendants also face fraud and money laundering charges.

U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna described the scams used by the defendants during a press conference on Thursday, saying that “fraud networks now target individuals and businesses alike.”

“In the BEC scams, the fraudsters will often hack a company’s email system, impersonate company personnel, and direct payments to bank accounts that funnel money back to the fraudsters in Nigeria,” Hanna said. “In the romance scams, victims think they are developing a dating relationship, when in fact they are just being tricked into sending money to the fraudsters.”

Just remember that you never get something for nothing. My Nigerian prince warned me about that back in ’98 or so. Although, come to think of it, he never did answer my e-mail yesterday. Hmmm.

The tough part for the DoJ will likely be extraditing their targets back to the US for trial. If this operation was as sophisticated as the indictment alleges, those who weren’t caught in the US yesterday are likely already activating their escape plans to get to non-extradition countries. Nigeria itself is one of the few African nations with an extradition agreement with the US, although perhaps enforcing it might be trickier than it looks.