Booklet Lists Observable Indicators of Potential Violent Extremists

A list of nearly four dozen observable behavioral signs that someone might be planning to commit an act of extremist violence is contained in a newly updated publication released by the country’s foremost counterterrorism organizations.

Homegrown Violent Extremist Mobilization Indicators, 2019 Edition, produced by the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Department of Homeland Security, contains a broad list of 46 behavioral indicators listed in color-coded groupings of how clearly the indicators might demonstrate an individual’s likelihood of engaging in terrorist activity. The booklet updates a prior version published in 2017.

The agencies authored the updated publication to help law enforcement—and the public at large—recognize potentially dangerous behaviors as the U.S. faces a heightened threat from homegrown violent extremists.

“The booklet provides our partners with tools to identify concerning behavior so that it can be responsibly reported to law enforcement,” said Michael McGarrity, assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. “We can’t be everywhere. We count on our partners to identify threats in their communities.”

The booklet, published on the website of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, describes each of the behavioral indicators, organized by how easily they can be diagnosed. For example, observing someone prepare a martyrdom video could be diagnosed on its own as a mobilization indicator, while seeing an individual conduct suspicious financial transactions would be considered “minimally diagnostic” and would require other observable indicators to meet a diagnostic threshold.

The publication emphasizes that many of the indicators may involve constitutionally protected activities. But observed together, the behaviors may raise suspicions and merit reporting to authorities.

“It’s an indispensable tool in our efforts to leverage all available resources to identify terrorists before they conduct deadly attacks,” said Matthew Alcoke, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division.

Read More

Creator of Website That Stole ATM Card Numbers Sentenced

Nearly half a million Alabama cell phone numbers received identical text messages in 2015 telling them to click a link to “verify” their bank account information. The link took recipients to a realistic-looking bank website where they typed in their personal financial information.

But the link was not the actual bank’s website—it was part of a phishing scam. Just like phishing messages sent over email, the text message-based scam was easy to fall for. The web address was only one character off from the bank’s actual web address.

While most recipients appeared to ignore the message, around 50 people clicked on the link and provided their personal information. The website asked for account numbers, names, and ZIP codes, along with their associated debit card numbers, security codes, and PINs. Within an hour, the fraudster had made himself debit cards with the victims’ account information. He then began to withdraw money from various ATMs, stealing whatever the daily ATM maximum was from each account.

“It was a fairly legitimate-looking website, other than the information it was asking for,” said Special Agent Jake Frith of the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, who worked the case along with investigators from the FBI’s Mobile Field Office.

The fraudster, Iosif Florea, stole about $18,000 (including ATM fees), with losses from each individual account ranging from $20 to $800. (Banks typically reimburse customers who are victims of fraud.)

Investigators believe Florea bought a large list of cell phone numbers from a marketing company, and he only needed a few victims out of thousands of phone numbers for the scheme to be successful.

The damage was minimized, however, because of the bank’s quick response. As soon as customers reported the fraud, the bank reached out to federal authorities as well as the local media to alert the community to the fraudulent messages.

Read More

Woman indicted for posing as an immigration attorney in Tampa, Chicago

TAMPA, Fla. – Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Tampa is looking for additional potential victims of a Tampa woman indicted Tuesday on four counts of wire fraud and three counts of wrongfully using government seals in connection with a scheme in which she fraudulently represented herself as an immigration attorney to take money from victims for services she never provided in the Tampa and Chicago areas. This case was investigated by HSI and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

According to the indictment, Erika Paola Intriago, 44, of Tampa, who is not a licensed attorney, fraudulently portrayed herself as an immigration attorney offering immigration-related services on social media targeting persons from Spanish-speaking countries seeking immigration-related services.

Victims retained and paid Intriago to represent them in immigration-related matters before USCIS and other agencies. Intriago is accused of then creating fraudulent letters, emails, receipts, documents, and communications to send her victims to falsely portray the records as legitimate communications with U.S. government agencies when in fact she never filed or completed the necessary immigration paperwork for which she was paid.

Intriago is also accused of threatening and intimidating victims who complained about her conduct by telling them that she would report their immigration status to U.S. immigration authorities, which Intriago claimed would result in the victims being deported.

If convicted, Intriago faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison for each count of wire fraud and up to five years in federal prison for each count of wrongfully using government seals.

Read More

Former FBI Director Webster Assists Investigation

The heavily accented caller who promised William Webster a grand sweepstakes prize of $72 million and a new Mercedes Benz had done most of his homework on his potential fraud target.

“I know that you was [sic] a judge, you was a lawyer, you was in the U.S. Navy,” the caller told his elderly mark. “I do your background check. You are a big man.”

What the caller, Keniel Thomas, 29, of Jamaica, missed was possibly the most salient detail about his intended victim, who was 90 years old the time: William Webster had served as director of both the FBI and the CIA, and so had a pretty good radar for pernicious criminal schemes—in this case, a Jamaican lottery scam.

Thomas’ persistent calls in 2014 to Webster and his wife, Lynda, followed the familiar arc of scams that target the elderly: The caller promises riches but requires some form of payment to move the process forward. The caller demands more and more, and then resorts to intimidation when the cooperation tapers off.

In the Websters’ case, the former judge was told he had to pay $50,000 to get his prize. When the money wasn’t forthcoming, the frequent calls escalated to scary threats, which led the couple to contact the FBI.

“I don’t know how the conversation turned sour,” said Webster, 95, director of the FBI for a decade beginning in 1978. “But it did. And at that point, he shifted gears. Instead of sweet talk, he began to threaten her.”

In one expletive-filled recorded message left on the Websters’ phone, Thomas threatened to kill them and burn down their house if he didn’t get what he wanted. “You live at a very lonely place,” he said. “And the moment you arrive, I’m gonna put a shot in your head.”

Special agents from the FBI’s Washington Field Office enlisted the Websters’ help in nabbing the caller by recording their phone conversations to build a case and develop a clear picture of the scheme. The legwork ultimately led to Thomas’ arrest in 2017 and his sentencing last month in federal court in Washington, D.C., to nearly six years in prison. It also revealed that Thomas and his relatives in Jamaica had successfully scammed others in the U.S. out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.”

Read More

Financial Fraud

A 77-year-old former landfill owner and investment banker from Pennsylvania who came up with a surefire way to make money—by illegally charging high interest rates on loans made to those who could least afford them—will likely spend the remainder of his life in prison.

Charles Hallinan, dubbed by prosecutors as the “godfather of payday lending” because his tactics to circumvent state laws and hide his long-running scheme paved the way for others to follow in his footsteps, recently received a 14-year federal prison sentence for his role in collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in short-term loans with interest rates that approached 800 percent.

Prosecutors portrayed Hallinan as a ruthless loan shark who enriched himself by trapping his victims in an endless cycle of debt. His scheme was simple: make small loans with fixed fees that borrowers agreed to pay back quickly, typically when their next payday arrived—hence, the name payday loans. A borrower might take out a $300 loan to cover an emergency car repair and agree to pay it back, along with a $90 fee, within two weeks. But if the loan was not repaid within that time, new fees were applied and the principal was not reduced.

For example, if a person borrowed $300 and agreed to pay a $90 fee with a two-week due date but failed to repay the loan for eight weeks, his or her fee would then be $360, and the original $300 loan would still be due.

“Anyone who didn’t have a desperate need for money would not take out one of these loans,” explained Special Agent Annette Murphy, who investigated the case from the FBI’s Philadelphia office. “People with limited resources were getting sucked into a cycle of paying fees and not paying down the principal.”

That was how Hallinan collected an astonishing amount of money from what is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of low-income victims from around the country. According to court documents, Hallinan was in the payday loan business from at least 1997 to 2013. The documents also revealed that between 2007 and 2013, Hallinan loaned $422 million and collected $490 million in fees. “During that period alone,” Murphy said, “he netted $68 million.”

Read More

Burglary Microbiome Project Looks for Incriminating Bacteria in Mock Crimes

The human body emits a staggering 36 million microbes into the outside environment—every single hour. Forensic scientists have looked to this signature as a kind of microscopic trail that may track down suspects, or even reconstruct movements in a crime.

The Burglary Microbiome Project, an ongoing study using mock crime scenes and scientific sampling of homes, residents and intruders, is underway to lay the groundwork for implementing the concept in real life, according to a group of scientists from three colleges.

The initial results were presented by the investigators at the American Society of Microbiology’s annual Microbe meeting in Atlanta earlier this month.

“This study is one of the first to use the microbiome as a forensic tool using unique markers rather than variances in microbial community structure,” said Jarrad Hampton-Marcell, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who presented at the conference.

The researchers, including those from Nova Southeastern University and the University of Chicago, first established baselines of the microbiome in the “crime scenes.”

They started by taking bacterial samples from the noses and hands of the residents, as well as various surfaces within their homes.

Overall, a total of 9,965 unique operational taxonomic units, or OTUs, were identified among 30 people who participated in the experiment.

The baseline established, they then conducted the mock burglaries, in which a suspect entered into the microbiome, dragging their own signature through the domestic environment, according to the researchers.

The invaders’ microbial signature was detected and mapped to the homes at greater than 60 percent accuracy, according to the scientists.

“When observing the change in OTUs over time, appearance/disappearance rates showed no significant difference in the absence or presence of other individuals,” add the researchers, in an American Society of Microbiology statement on the work.

But more work remains to refine the markers, and distinguish further markers to improve the accuracy, they said.

“With further improvement in detection of stable markers, the human microbiome may serve as an additional tool for human profiling and crime scene investigations,” added Hampton-Marcell.

Read More

International Criminal Enterprise Dismantled

Owen Hanson, who often went by his nickname, “O-Dog,” led a charmed life. He had been a popular high school athlete who found some athletic success—and even more popularity—at the University of Southern California.

After graduating with a business degree, he got his real estate license and, over time, undertook several seemingly successful business ventures that enabled him to buy a luxury home in Redondo Beach and a number of vacation properties elsewhere, drive expensive cars, travel routinely to Las Vegas to gamble, and party with professional athletes and celebrities.

However, as law enforcement came to discover, Hanson’s most productive “business venture” turned out to be a violent international drug trafficking, sports gambling, and money laundering enterprise that operated in the U.S., Central and South America, and Australia from 2012 to 2016. And late last year, Hanson was sentenced in U.S. district court in San Diego to more than 21 years in federal prison for heading up that criminal enterprise. He was also ordered to pay a $5 million criminal forfeiture, which included $100,000 in gold coins, his luxury vehicles, jewelry, vacation homes, a sailboat, and interests in several businesses.

Twenty-one of Hanson’s associates were also charged in this crime ring, and all have pleaded guilty—the most recent one in April 2018.

So how did a one-time talented and well-liked school athlete turn into the mastermind behind a major criminal operation?

The story of Owen Hanson’s illicit activities actually began in the early 2000s in college, when he sold recreational drugs and steroids to his teammates. But it wasn’t until early 2014—on the heels of an international sports gambling investigation that the FBI worked in partnership with the New South Wales Police Force in Australia—that some of Hanson’s post-graduate activities got the attention of federal law enforcement. And once again, investigators from the FBI and New South Wales joined forces to uncover a second gambling—and, ultimately, drug trafficking—enterprise that would lead all the way to Hanson.

Read More

US and UK blame Russia for ‘malicious’ cyber-offensive

The cyberwar between the west and Russia has escalated after the UK and the US issued a joint alert accusing Moscow of mounting a “malicious” internet offensive that appeared to be aimed at espionage, stealing intellectual property and laying the foundation for an attack on infrastructure.

Senior security officials in the US and UK held a rare joint conference call to directly blame the Kremlin for targeting government institutions, private sector organisations and infrastructure, and internet providers supporting these sectors.

Rob Joyce, the White House cybersecurity coordinator, set out a range of actions the US could take such as fresh sanctions and indictments as well as retaliating with its own cyber-offensive capabilities. “We are pushing back and we are pushing back hard,” he said.

Joyce stressed the offensive could not be linked to Friday’s raid on Syria. It was not retaliation for the US, UK and French attack as the US and UK had been investigating the cyber-offensive for months. Nor, he said, should the decision to make public the cyber-attack be seen as a response to events in Syria.

Joyce was joined in the call by representatives from the FBI, the US Department of Homeland Security and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which is part of the surveillance agency GCHQ.

The US and UK, in a joint statement, said the cyber-attack was aimed not just at the UK and US but globally. “Specifically, these cyber-exploits were directed at network infrastructure devices worldwide such as routers, switches, firewalls, network intrusion detection system,” it said.

“Russian state-sponsored actors are using compromised routers to conduct spoofing ‘man-in-the-middle’ attacks to support espionage, extract intellectual property, maintain persistent access to victim networks and potentially lay a foundation for future offensive operations.

Read More