Cryptocurrency Fraudster Sentenced

Even in the world of virtual currency, where value and possession exist largely in the digital realm, laws still apply and the repercussion of breaking them are very real.

The victims of Homero Joshua Garza’s virtual currency scam lost more than $9 million, and Garza will spend 21 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release after pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud. He has also been ordered to pay restitution to his victims.

In charging documents, prosecutors contend Garza founded and operated several Connecticut-based businesses (GAW Miners, ZenMiner, and ZenCloud) between 2014 and 2015 that sold bitcoin-mining hardware, offered shares in a virtual currency mining operation, and created and sold a virtual currency called PayCoin. None of these businesses would have been illegal if conducted properly, but through a series of misleading and false statements about his companies’ capabilities, partnerships, and financial backing, Garza fraudulently drew investors to his enterprises and eventually resorted to Ponzi-scheme tactics to delay detection of his fraud.

“Garza got into this market at the right time,” said Special Agent Mark Munster, who investigated this case from the FBI’s New Haven Field Office. “The interest and enthusiasm for these currencies was high, and he was able to market himself and the business very effectively. The problem was that much of what Garza was marketing was a lie.”

The first iteration of Garza’s companies sold the computer equipment virtual currency enthusiasts use to mine, or solve the complex equations required to attain a bitcoin or other virtual currency. Munster said Garza’s business started as a legitimate operation with a clever hook—he wanted to make it easier for people who didn’t have a technical background to access cryptocurrencies.

The initial currency-mining equipment business turned into one that offered to purchase a currency miner on the customer’s behalf and set it up at the GAW Miners data center. The customer could then direct the miner’s activities and reap its profits. Garza then moved into selling shares, or “hashlets,” that represented a percentage of the profits being made by his company’s purportedly robust bitcoin mining efforts. These hashlets, Garza assured investors, would always be profitable.

Mining bitcoins at the volume needed to generate the type of value Garza was promising requires a staggering amount of computing power. These powerful computers are expensive, as is the electricity required to run them. “There were data centers,” said Munster, “but not nearly the capacity that they were representing.” Without the actual infrastructure to support the shares he was selling, returns fell far short of what was promised to investors, and Garza began using new investments in the company to pay returns to others.

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Prominent Gallery Owner Sentenced for Defrauding Clients

The fine art world trades largely on names—names like da Vinci, Picasso, and Cézanne that can make the value of a canvas soar, and the names of dealers and gallery owners who operate in this rarified air by virtue of their own reputation and renown. Ezra Chowaiki was one of those dealers, and his gallery on New York’s Park Avenue catered to art collectors, buyers, and sellers from around the globe.

But in September 2018, Chowaiki was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for carrying out what the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York called “an elaborate scheme to defraud art dealers and collectors of millions of dollars.” Chowaiki’s name and his word, as it turned out, were not worth much.

According to an online biography, the company Chowaiki founded with partners in 2004 “established itself as a prominent gallery managing the acquisition and sale of art by Impressionist, Modern, Post-War, and Contemporary masters.” The gallery was also known for hosting exhibitions of major works.

“Chowaiki had been in the art world for a while and had completed plenty of legitimate deals,” said Special Agent Christopher McKeogh with the FBI’s Art Crime Team in the New York Field Office. “Most of the illegal activity was relatively recent.” But McKeogh stressed that once it began, “the schemes and thefts were coming at a fast and furious clip.”

When the investigation reached the FBI in November 2017, Chowaiki’s gallery had just filed for bankruptcy, and the New York Police Department was already identifying and interviewing victims of bad deals. The FBI became involved because of the expertise of its Art Crime Team as well as the interstate and international nature of the crimes. The biggest concern: 25 stolen masterworks by Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, and others.

“The case came with a true sense of urgency,” said McKeogh. “We needed to get the scheme under control and get the artwork back before it changed hands again and disappeared.”

According to court documents and the case agent, Chowaiki was actively carrying out both frauds and thefts. McKeogh said the frauds usually involved Chowaiki overselling the value of a painting. For example, he would reach out to an individual with whom he had a relationship and offer that person the opportunity to buy a share of a work, claiming it could be resold for a quick profit. He would then offer the same deal to a second person and then to a third. Sometimes they were paintings in which Chowaiki had no actual control or ownership stake, but he would collect more than 100 percent of their value. “It was like me selling you a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge,” said McKeogh.

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A Tennessee clinic swindled the military out of $65M. This is how it got caught

CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. — Bill Schneid stood in his home office, holding a package of skin cream worth more than gold. He didn’t know exactly what he had stumbled on, but he was pretty sure it was illegal.

It was March 2015. A few weeks before, Schneid, 72, a curmudgeonly private investigator, had been snooping around Southern California military bases when a Marine he knew mentioned he had a strange source of side income.

The Marine was being paid to get medicine he didn’t need. A Tennessee doctor he had never met wrote him a medicinal cream prescription, which was being filled by a pharmacy in Utah. The military covered the bill and the Marine got a cash kickback from somebody. When the creams arrived in the mail, the Marine didn’t actually use them.

He was in it for the money, not the medicine, after all.

Suspicious, Schneid launched a ruse to investigate, persuading the Marine to reroute the shipments to his house. Soon, Schneid received a shoebox-sized parcel that held several tubes of cream about the same size and consistency as sunscreen that was supposedly used to treat pain and scars.

This medicine had been prescribed, supplied and delivered seemingly for no reason at all. Nobody needed it. Nobody wanted it. So what was the point?

“After the second delivery, I realized this was some kind of fraud,” Schneid said in an interview. “I believed there were about a dozen Marines involved, and they were being actively recruited to be prescribed this cream.

“It was a conspiracy, and it was growing, but I just didn’t know how huge.”

Today, court records make clear the enormity of the conspiracy. The scheme that Schneid stumbled upon in 2015 stretched from California to Tennessee, involving people and companies from at least four states. In Tennessee, two doctors and a nurse practitioner have pleaded guilty to defrauding a military insurance program, called Tricare, out of $65 million. At least two more suspects are still facing charges. Federal prosecutors also are attempting to seize swaths of East Tennessee farmland, a strip mall, and a large estate they argue was purchased with health care fraud profits.

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Evaluating the Use of Automated Facial Recognition Technology

Academics at Cardiff University have conducted the first independent academic evaluation of Automated Facial Recognition (AFR) technology across a variety of major policing operations.

The project by the Universities’ Police Science Institute evaluated South Wales Police’s deployment of Automated Facial Recognition across several major sporting and entertainment events in Cardiff city over more than a year, including the UEFA Champion’s League Final and the Autumn Rugby Internationals.

The study found that while AFR can enable police to identify persons of interest and suspects where they would probably not otherwise have been able to do so, considerable investment and changes to police operating procedures are required to generate consistent results.

Researchers employed a number of research methods to develop a rich picture and systematically evaluate the use of AFR by police across multiple operational settings. This is important as previous research on the use of AFR technologies has tended to be conducted in controlled conditions. Using it on the streets and to support ongoing criminal investigations introduces a range of factors impacting the effectiveness of AFR in supporting police work.

The technology works in two modes: Locate is the live, real-time application that scans faces within CCTV feeds in an area. It searches for possible matches against a pre-selected database of facial images of individuals deemed to be persons of interest by the police.

Identify, on the other hand, takes still images of unidentified persons (usually captured via CCTV or mobile phone camera) and compares these against the police custody database in an effort to generate investigative leads. Evidence from the research found that in 68 percent of submissions made by police officers in the Identify mode, the image was not of sufficient quality for the system to work.

Over the period of the evaluation, however, the accuracy of the technology improved significantly and police got better at using it. The Locate system was able to correctly identify a person of interest around 76 percent of the time. A total of 18 arrests were made in ‘live Locate deployments during the evaluation, and in excess of 100 people were charged following investigative searches during the first 8-9 months of the AFR Identify operation (end of July 2017-March 2018).

The report suggests that it is more helpful to think of AFR in policing as ‘Assisted Facial Recognition’ rather than a fully ‘Automated Facial Recognition’ system. ‘Automated’ implies that the identification process is conducted solely by an algorithm, when in fact, the system serves as a decision-support tool to assist human operators in making identifications. Ultimately, decisions about whether a person of interest and an image match are made by police operators. It is also deployed in uncontrolled environments, and so is impacted by external factors including lighting, weather and crowd flows.

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FBI Takes Victim-Centered Approach to Combating Trafficking

Late one night in April 2016, Antonio Hawkins noticed a crying teenage girl walking down the street in Houston, Texas. She was a runaway from out of state with nowhere to go, and he told her he would help her.

Instead, Hawkins brought the girl to Tennessee, where he spent two weeks trafficking the 15-year-old for sex in the Memphis area. He brutally beat her to keep her in line and stole all of her earnings. Hawkins was also trafficking three other women at that time, using violence and threats to control them as well.

“He recruited girls and women who were down on their luck,” said Special Agent Jaime Corman, who investigated this case out of the FBI’s Memphis Field Office. “He told his victims he would take care of them, but he violently kept them in check and controlled every aspect of their lives.”

Instead of trafficking the young women online, as many pimps do today, he had them walking an area of Memphis known for prostitution. A Memphis police officer found her there and notified the FBI, who was able to assist her and help find and stop her trafficker.

While agents investigated the case, specialists from the FBI’s Victim Services Division helped the girl find resources to rebuild her life. Since then, she has found an apartment and a job, and she overcame her fear of Hawkins to testify against him at his trial.

“These guys target the most vulnerable—runaways, foster kids, kids who come from difficult circumstances,” Corman said. “They commit crimes against these girls, making them sell their bodies. We want to show these young women that there’s something else out there for them, and they don’t have to continue down this path.”

Last July, Hawkins was convicted of five sex trafficking charges, and in November, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Corman said the FBI works closely with local law enforcement to stop traffickers and help victims. Local police are often the first to interact with the victims, while the FBI brings national resources to these cases, which often span multiple states and jurisdictions. In this case, after being contacted by a local officer, the FBI helped not only track down the pimp but also manage the complexity of bringing in victims from other parts of the country to participate in his trial.

“Local law enforcement are the people who come in contact with these victims, and we count on them to recognize human trafficking and call us,” Corman said.

Although January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the FBI and its partners work to end human trafficking all year long. The FBI’s approach is a victim-centered one, working to get pimps off the streets and help the victims move forward with their lives. In addition to the investigative work, the Bureau’s Victim Services Division works with hundreds of victims of human trafficking each year—notifying them about the status of their offenders’ cases and connecting them with resources to unify them with their families, find jobs, find housing, obtain drug treatment if necessary, and more.

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Study Details Link Between Social Media and Sex Trafficking

Social media is increasingly being exploited to contact, recruit and sell children for sex, according to a study by The University of Toledo Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute.

The study, which was requested by the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission, reveals how traffickers quickly target and connect with vulnerable children on the Internet through social media.

“It is vitally important to educate parents, professionals and youth – especially our middle school or teenage daughters who may be insecure – about the dangers of online predatory practices used by master manipulators,” said Dr. Celia Williamson, UT professor of social work and director of the UT Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute. “Through this outreach and education, we can help save children from becoming victims of modern-day slavery.”

“We know predators are using the internet to find their victims, and this eye-opening study highlights what a predator looks for in a victim and helps parents recognize the signs that their child may be a target,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said. “Using real-life examples, this study provides valuable information that parents can use to start open and honest conversations with their children about staying safe online.”

Through a series of 16 in-depth interviews by the institute’s staff and student interns with knowledgeable members of Ohio law enforcement, judges, direct service providers, advocates and researchers who engaged with victims who were trafficked online, the study outlines how traffickers connect to vulnerable youth online, groom the children to form quicker relationships, avoid detection, and move the connections from online to in-person.

“The transition from messaging to meeting a trafficker in person is becoming less prevalent,” Williamson said. “As technology is playing a larger role in trafficking, this allows some traffickers to be able to exploit youth without meeting face-to-face. Social media helps to mask traditional cues that alert individuals to a potentially dangerous person.”

Williamson cites a 2018 report that says while 58 percent of victims eventually meet their traffickers face to face, 42 percent who initially met their trafficker online never met their trafficker in person and were still trafficked.

The experts, whose identities are not being released, said the traffickers educate themselves by studying what the victim posts on commonly used view-and-comment sites such as Facebook, Instagram or SnapChat, as well as dating apps such as Tinder, Blendr and Yellow, or webcam sites like Chatroulette and Monkey, in order to build trust.

“These guys, they learn about the girls and pretend to understand them, and so these girls, who are feeling not understood and not loved and not beautiful … these guys are very good at sort of pretending that they are all of these things and they really understand them and, ‘I know how you feel, you are beautiful,’ and just filling the hole that these girls are feeling,” said a professional contributing to the study.

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Feds Can’t Force You To Unlock Your iPhone With Finger Or Face

A California judge has ruled that American cops can’t force people to unlock a mobile phone with their face or finger. The ruling goes further to protect people’s private lives from government searches than any before and is being hailed as a potentially landmark decision.

Previously, U.S. judges had ruled that police were allowed to force unlock devices like Apple’s iPhone with biometrics, such as fingerprints, faces or irises. That was despite the fact feds weren’t permitted to force a suspect to divulge a passcode. But according to a ruling uncovered by Forbes, all logins are equal.

The order came from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in the denial of a search warrant for an unspecified property in Oakland. The warrant was filed as part of an investigation into a Facebook extortion crime, in which a victim was asked to pay up or have an “embarassing” video of them publicly released. The cops had some suspects in mind and wanted to raid their property. In doing so, the feds also wanted to open up any phone on the premises via facial recognition, a fingerprint or an iris.

While the judge agreed that investigators had shown probable cause to search the property, they didn’t have the right to open all devices inside by forcing unlocks with biometric features.

On the one hand, magistrate judge Kandis Westmore ruled the request was “overbroad” as it was “neither limited to a particular person nor a particular device.”

But in a more significant part of the ruling, Judge Westmore declared that the government did not have the right, even with a warrant, to force suspects to incriminate themselves by unlocking their devices with their biological features. Previously, courts had decided biometric features, unlike passcodes, were not “testimonial.” That was because a suspect would have to willingly and verbally give up a passcode, which is not the case with biometrics. A password was therefore deemed testimony, but body parts were not, and so not granted Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination.

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FBI Joins International Campaign to Stop Money Mules

The ask comes through a job posting or from someone you meet online. It seems simple and harmless enough: provide your bank account information and allow money transfers to flow into your account. Then move the money elsewhere and maybe earn a little cash for the trouble. Easy, painless, profitable. Right?

Wrong. You are likely aiding criminals by acting as a money mule, which can land you in prison and permanently damage your financial standing.

The FBI is joining with law enforcement partners worldwide to raise awareness of and curtail this illegal movement of funds, which is fueling the growth of crimes across the globe.

The FBI defines a money mule as a person who transfers illegally acquired money on behalf of or at the direction of another. Money mules often receive a commission for the service or provide assistance because they believe they have a trusting or romantic relationship with the individual who is asking for help.

Much of the money moved through these third-parties is stolen through Internet-enabled frauds, thefts, and scams. Drug trafficking and human trafficking are also common sources of the money. While some money mules may be genuinely unaware of their involvement in a larger criminal scheme, many fully understand they are moving money attained from unlawful activities. All mules, whether unaware or complicit, are committing a crime.

“Money mules are needed to help move stolen money from country to country, avert the scrutiny of financial institutions, and mask the identity of the individuals involved in these largely Internet-enabled crimes,” said Special Agent James Abbott of the Bureau’s Money Laundering, Forfeiture, and Bank Fraud Unit at FBI Headquarters. “Being able to easily move the profits from these crimes contributes to their rapid growth and threatens the safety and security of everyone who has a presence online.”

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Members of APT 10 Group Targeted Intellectual Property and Confidential Information

Two Chinese men have been charged in a massive, years-long hacking campaign that stole personal and proprietary information from companies around the world, the FBI and the Justice Department announced at a press conference today in Washington, D.C.

The men, Zhu Hua and Zhang Shilong, are part of a group known as Advanced Persistent Threat 10, or APT 10, a hacking group associated with the Chinese government. A New York grand jury indicted the pair for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft. The indictment was unsealed today.

According to the indictment, from around 2006 to 2018, APT 10 conducted extensive hacking campaigns, stealing information from more than 45 victim organizations, including American companies. Hundreds of gigabytes of sensitive data were secretly taken from companies in a diverse range of industries, such as health care, biotechnology, finance, manufacturing, and oil and gas.

FBI Director Christopher Wray described the list of companies, not named in the indictment, as a “Who’s Who” of the global economy. Even government agencies like NASA and the Department of Energy were among the victims. The hack is part of China’s ongoing efforts to steal intellectual property from other countries.

“Healthy competition is good for the global economy. Criminal conduct is not. Rampant theft is not. Cheating is not,” Wray said at the press conference.

APT 10 used “spear phishing” techniques to introduce malware onto targeted computers. The hackers sent emails that appeared to be from legitimate addresses but contained attachments that installed a program to secretly record all keystrokes on the machine, including user names and passwords. The group also targeted managed service providers (MSPs), companies that remotely manage their clients’ servers and networks. MSP hacks allowed APT 10 members to indirectly gain access to confidential data of numerous companies who were the clients of the MSPs.

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9 Defendants Charged in Chicago in International Investigation Targeting

CHICAGO — Seven Chicago-area residents are among nine individuals arrested in the United States and Nigeria as part of an international investigation into online “romance scams” and “mystery shopper” schemes.

During the Chicago-based investigation, dubbed “Operation Gold Phish,” law enforcement identified a variety of cyber-enabled fraud schemes allegedly carried out by conspirators in the U.S. and Nigeria.

One of the alleged schemes involved “romance scams,” in which a conspirator builds trust with a victim through a purported online romance before convincing the victim to send money to a predetermined recipient.

The conspirators initially contacted victims online via applications and websites, including Match.com, Facebook, and Instagram, the complaint states.

Another alleged cyber-enabled fraud involved a “mystery shopper” scheme, in which conspirators fraudulently offered victims opportunities to work as a mystery shopper and receive commissions for evaluating retailers.

The victim received a check through the U.S. mail with instructions to deposit it in a personal bank account, withdraw the money in cash, and wire it to a third party.

The check turned out to be fake, and the victims were defrauded of the wired money, the charges allege.

A criminal complaint filed Dec. 4, 2018, in U.S. District Court in Chicago charged nine defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Arrests were recently carried out in Illinois, Texas, and Nigeria, and all of the defendants are now in law enforcement custody.

The Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is conducting a related investigation of other individuals in Nigeria.

The U.S. charges were announced by John R. Lausch, Jr., United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois; Jeffrey S. Sallet, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Chicago office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and Craig Goldberg, Inspector-in-Charge of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Chicago.

Valuable assistance was provided by the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Peter S. Salib and Charles W. Mulaney represent the government.

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