Four men charged in Nigeria e-mail scam

Justice Department alleges they fleeced American citizens out of $1.2 million, with promises of riches in exchange for charity.

A quartet of suspected e-mail scammers--three of them Nigerian citizens--could face scores of years in prison if convicted on fraud and conspiracy charges, the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday.

A grand jury in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Wednesday charged Nnamdi Chizuba Anisiobi, Anthony Friday Ehis, Kesandu Egwuonwu and another unnamed defendant with one count of conspiracy, eight counts of wire fraud and one count of mail fraud. Anisiobi also faces one count of bank fraud.

According to the Justice Department's charges, New York-based victims of the e-mail scams lost more than $1.2 million to the fraudsters.

Their schemes resembled a popular fraud ploy, sometimes called a 419 scam , or an advance-fee scheme, that has dogged the African nation. Their perpetrators typically send letters and e-mails to thousands of victims, offering a large sum of money and attempt to dupe them into paying fees beforehand. The criminals then pocket the cash and shirk their end of the fake bargain.

One incident described in the 27-page indictment involved a suspect who posed as a suffering throat-cancer patient native to the Southeast Asian nation of Brunei. He said he was too ill to distribute his cache of $55 million to charity and needed help, promising a 20 percent commission in return. But anyone who fell for the offer encountered a number of bogus "shipment" and processing fees numbering in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Three of the suspects were first arrested in February in Amsterdam, where they were living at the time. They are being held by authorities until their extradition to the United States. The fourth suspect is a fugitive.

If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in prison for mail and wire fraud, 30 years for bank fraud, and five years for the conspiracy charge.

Dutch authorities, which initiated the investigation, are no strangers to dealing with suspected Nigerian scammers. In 2004, their bust of a suspected ring yielded 52 arrests.

Last year, a Nigerian court sentenced a woman to two-and-a-half years in prison after she pleaded guilty to conspiring in what was called the nation's biggest scam case ever--a $242 million fraud incident involving a Brazilian bank. The country has stepped up its focus on the problem in recent months, teaming up with Microsoft and British officials to spread warnings about scammers.

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