Spammers plead guilty to "419" scams that netted US$1.2 million

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Three men pleaded guilty this week in New York to running get-rich-quick spam schemes - including a scam where one of the men claimed to have terminal throat cancer - targeting email users.

The group is believed to have made more than US$1.2 million perpetrating the scams, according to the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ).

Nnamdi Chizuba Anisiobi, 31, and Kesandu Egwuonwu, 35, both of Nigeria, and Anthony Friday Ehis, 34, of Senegal, each pleaded guilty to participating in the schemes commonly known as 419 scams in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Anisiobi, also known as Abdul Rahman, Michael Anderson, Edmund Walter, Nancy White and Namo, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, eight counts of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud.

Egwuonwu, also known as Joey Martin Maxwell, David Mark and Helmut Schkinger, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, three counts of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud while Ehis pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and five counts of wire fraud.

A fourth defendant, Lenn Nwokeafor, a Nigerian citizen also known as Eric Williams, Lee, Chucks and Nago, fled to his home country where he is being held pending extradition to the United States. He was arrested by the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in July, 2006.

The maximum penalty for mail and wire fraud is 20 years in prison, while the conspiracy change carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

The group sent spam emails to thousands of email users, claiming to control millions of dollars abroad, including an amount of US$55 million supposedly from a throat-cancer victim who needed assistance distributing the funds, according to the DOJ.

The defendants offered recipients a 20-percent commission, either to the end-user or a favourite charity, for their help, and sent fraudulent documents to the victim.

Anisiobi also telephoned victims, masking his voice to give the impression that he was suffering from throat cancer, before the group asked for payments to supposedly cover legal fees and taxes, according to a DOJ news release.

“Online scam artists should be on notice that we will continue to work closely with our international partners to ensure that there are no safe geographic boundaries for committing these crimes,” said Asst. Attorney General Alice Fisher.

While the scam emails may seem easy to delete, Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, an anti-virus vendor, said Thursday that there is no shortage of end-users who fall for them.

“It may be hard to believe that people fall for this type of crime, but sadly there are vulnerable and naïve people out there who do hand over their information and money to criminals. These men stole over US$1.2 million with their scam emails, proving that there are still plenty of people waiting to have their bank accounts emptied by criminals on the net.”

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