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.

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Director Discusses FBI Approach at Cybersecurity Conference

With cyber threats to the United States and across globe reaching unprecedented levels, the FBI uses a full spectrum of expertise, technology, and partnerships to root out cyber criminals, FBI Director Christopher Wray said at the annual RSA Conference in San Francisco yesterday.

“Today’s cyber threat is bigger than any one government agency—frankly, bigger than government itself,” Wray said in an on-stage interview at the cybersecurity conference. “But I think no agency brings the same combination of scope and scale, experience, tools, and relationships that the FBI has.”

From multinational cyber syndicates to foreign intelligence services, hacktivists, and insider threats, Wray explained that the FBI takes a multidisciplinary approach to combating threats. For example, the Bureau has an elite rapid deployment force and Cyber Action Teams that can respond to incidents anywhere in the world. In addition, the FBI has joined other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies on Cyber Task Forces to coordinate responses. Specially trained cyber agents are also embedded in FBI legal attaché offices in more than 60 countries worldwide.

In addition to law enforcement partnerships, Wray also stressed the importance of public-private partnerships, so prevention and response can be swift and coordinated.

“The key is having the private sector start to form relationships with their local field office beforehand,” Wray said.

As the FBI continues to grow its partnerships, the FBI is also developing its workforce’s cyber expertise. Wray spoke about the FBI’s success in recruiting special agents and professional staff over the past year.

“We’re dealing with the most sophisticated, toughest cyber actors in the world, and if you want the ability to take on those people, to be on the front lines of that battle, dealing with incredibly cutting-edge technology … you would be in the right place,” Wray said of FBI cyber careers.

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Three Sentenced in Public Corruption Case

An Alabama legislator who was bribed by a corporation to represent the company’s interests—instead of his constituents’—is now serving prison time, and the two men who paid him will be serving time as well.

Former state representative Oliver Robinson, Jr., 58, agreed to a community outreach contract with a law firm that represented Drummond Company, Inc., a Birmingham, Alabama-based coal company. The contract paid Robinson $375,00 over two years. While the contract itself was not illegal, Drummond executive David Roberson and lawyer Joel Gilbert used it as a bribe to induce Robinson to take official action as a state legislator promoting the interests of the company he was secretly representing—a violation of public corruption law.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had previously informed a Drummond-owned company of its potential responsibility for environmental pollution in North Birmingham—a liability that could cost the company tens of millions of dollars. So Drummond, along with its attorneys, started a public relations campaign to oppose the EPA’s actions. The company and its representatives told local residents not to allow the EPA to test their soil and that their housing values would plummet if the EPA placed the community on its Superfund National Priorities List. Part of the overall strategy was the outreach contract with Robinson to help the company get those messages out.

In early February 2015, Robinson signed a letter (secretly authored by Gilbert) in his official legislative capacity to the Alabama Environmental Management Commission against the EPA’s actions. Later that month, Robinson signed the contract and received his first check from Gilbert’s law firm for $14,000. Four days later, he represented Drummond’s position at an Alabama Environmental Management Commission public meeting, where he claimed to be representing his constituents and did not disclose his financial relationship with the coal company or law firm.

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Fraudsters Told Prisoners’ Families They Could Buy Sentence Reductions

The sales pitch was enticing: Families with loved ones in prison could hire investigators to provide information to the government that would result in a reduction in their family members’ sentences.

It sounded too good to be true—because it was.

A group of fraudsters who made this pitch to more than 20 inmates’ families were paid more than $4 million, but neither the prisoners nor their relatives ever received any benefit.

It is possible under certain circumstances for incarcerated individuals to get a sentence reduction for providing information to the government, but they never have to pay for that. Also, those cases typically involve an incarcerated person providing information regarding their own co-defendants.

Alvin Warrick and several co-conspirators set up a company called Private Services in Texas, but the word—and the scam—quickly spread across the country. Warrick and his associates communicated primarily through email and phone and used pseudonyms in an attempt to cover their tracks. They told the families their investigators were making undercover drug buys and that those “investigations” would lead to sentence reductions for their family members. They repeatedly lied to their clients, telling them that the investigations were ongoing and working their way through the legal system.

“That is just not how the system works, but many of these families didn’t know that,” said Special Agent Tracy Masington, who investigated this case out of the FBI’s Houston Field Office along with the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

Masington noted that at least one victim was in another country trying to get his son out of prison. Another victim was an elderly woman who, on her deathbed, made her daughter promise she’d continue paying Private Services to try to free her son from prison after her death.

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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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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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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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Credit Card Cloners Stole Thousands

A prolific credit card scammer—who continued his crimes from behind bars—is now serving a lengthy sentence thanks to a multi-agency investigation into his card-cloning operation.

From 2014 to 2016, Syracuse, New York, resident Daquan Rice, 23, and several associates purchased credit card numbers online from hackers in Russia, Pakistan, and Ukraine, who sell the information they steal. Rice also bought credit card numbers from a friend who worked at a Syracuse restaurant who had skimmed numbers from customer credit cards on Rice’s behalf.

Rice had an associate in New York City with a credit card cloning machine, and he would provide the numbers to the person to make new cards for him. Rice and his accomplices then used these cards to buy gift cards, which they would convert into cash or money orders.

“It’s unfortunately not that hard or complicated to get your hands on stolen credit card numbers,” said Special Agent Brandon Mercer of the FBI’s Albany Division, who investigated this case along with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, New York State Police, and local law enforcement in the Syracuse area. “This information is readily available on the dark web from hackers and other criminals.”

There was nothing a merchant could have done to stop the fraudulent transaction, because the thieves put the fake cards in their own names. So even if a cashier asked for identification, the name on the credit card would have matched their IDs.

“It was a numbers game. They would print out hundreds of these cards. They would go to the register and swipe, and if it didn’t work, they would just throw it away and use the next one,” Mercer said. “A lot of these cards were only able to used once because the cardholder noticed the fraud and shut down the card.”

The fraudsters made about $80,000 over two years.

After his 2016 arrest for credit card cloning, Rice tried to continue his scheme—from his jail cell. In 2017, he worked with an accomplice, who was not in prison, to put more than $8,000 in funds stolen through credit card fraud on Rice’s prison commissary account. Rice tried to use that account to write large checks, but the prison shut down his account for the unusual activity and contacted the FBI.

Rice pleaded guilty to wire fraud, money laundering, and aggravated identity theft, and in October, he was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison. Several accomplices have also been sentenced for their roles in the scheme.

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