ATLANTA — A Norcross man has been sentenced to 25 years in federal prison after being convicted in a case involving romance and business email scams and co-conspirators from counties neighboring Newton.
Elvis Eghosa Ogiekpolor, 46, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge William M. Ray II to 25 years in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release, a U.S. Justice Department news release stated.
The court will schedule a hearing for a later date at which time it will determine the amount of restitution that Ogiekpolor owes.
A federal grand jury charged him in February 2022 with one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and 15 counts of substantive money laundering. A federal jury convicted him of these charges on May 31 following an eight-day trial.
Ogiekpolor opened and directed others to open at least 50 fraudulent business bank accounts that received over $9.5 million from various online frauds, including romance frauds and business email compromise scams — commonly known as “BECs." He then laundered the fraud proceeds using other accounts, including dozens of accounts overseas.
U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Buchanan said, “Ogiekpolor and his co-conspirators were part of a broader international network of online fraudsters and money launderers who wreaked havoc and devastation on unsuspecting individuals and businesses.
"This case demonstrates our office’s unrelenting commitment to hold accountable those who prey on the vulnerabilities of victims and seek to exploit our nation’s banking system.”
Keri Farley, special agent in charge of FBI Atlanta, said, “There is no way we can make the victims of Ogiekpolor and this network whole again, but we hope this sentence will at least give them solace that people are being held accountable.
"The FBI makes it a top priority to investigate these cyber-crimes and the greedy criminals behind them.”
According to Buchanan, the charges and other information presented in court, beginning in at least October 2018 and continuing until August 2020, Ogiekpolor directed at least eight so-called “money mules” — including six who testified against him at trial — to open more than 50 fraudulent business bank accounts in Georgia in the names of a dozen sham companies. The sham companies did not occupy physical premises, earn legitimate income, or pay wages to employees.
Ogiekpolor instructed the money mules to open multiple accounts at once and, if one bank closed an account for suspected fraud or other suspicious activity, to simply open additional fraudulent accounts at different banks. Ogiekpolor then provided the accounts to other co-conspirators to receive the proceeds from multiple romance frauds, BEC scams, and other frauds impacting dozens of victims in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as multiple businesses.
Romance scams are a type of online fraud in which victims are targeted by individuals posing as potential paramours. The fraudsters create fake online dating profiles — often with photographs of attractive men or women — and use these fake personas to express strong romantic interest in the victims to entice them into sending money under false pretenses.
Romance scams frequently target vulnerable individuals who possess significant financial assets, such as retired widows or widowers. In Ogiekpolor’s case, unsuspecting victims would typically wire funds directly into one of his fraudulent accounts, or mail checks or cash to Ogiekpolor’s money mules in Georgia. Once the fraud proceeds posted to his accounts, Ogiekpolor laundered the funds, including wiring hundreds of thousands of dollars to overseas accounts, and withdrawing substantial amounts in cash and cashier’s checks.
Multiple romance fraud victims, mainly women, testified at trial. The victims recounted how they met male strangers online and were soon convinced they were in a romantic relationship with the men, even though the victims were in communication with the individuals for months without meeting in person.
Often these men claimed they wanted to start a life with the victims and were eager to live with them as soon as some kind of issue was resolved. For example, one romance fraud victim was convinced to wire $32,000 to one of the accounts Ogiekpolor controlled because her “boyfriend” — one of the men online — claimed a part of his oil rig needed to be replaced but that his bank account was frozen. This victim borrowed against her retirement and savings to provide the funds, which ultimately required her to refinance her home to pay back the loan.
Another victim testified that she was convinced to send nearly $70,000 because the man she met on eHarmony claimed to need money to promptly make payment on several invoices due to a frozen bank account.
The 13 romance fraud victims who testified at trial represented just a small number of such victims who were defrauded into sending money to Ogiekpolor’s accounts.
BEC scams also commonly involve an employee of a company who has been fooled into responding to email messages that appear to be, but are not, legitimate — “spoof emails." At trial, the jury heard from several businesses – representing just a small sample of the total number of companies defrauded – who had been victimized by spoof emails. In each case, the victim-business believed it was making a payment, often several hundreds of thousands of dollars, to a longstanding vendor only to subsequently learn that they had been tricked into sending the money to an account controlled by Ogiekpolor and thereby defrauded.
In addition to Ogiekpolor, several of his co-conspirators have been convicted of conspiracy to commit money laundering in connection with this case, including:
• Vere Whyte, 35, of Stone Mountain, who pleaded guilty on Nov. 15, 2021;
• Kutina Crawford, 49, of Lithonia, who pleaded guilty on May 2, 2022;
• Ebony Parks, 28, of Jonesboro, who pleaded guilty on May 11, 2022;
• Tiffany Gaines, 42, of Conyers, who pleaded guilty on May 16, 2022;
• Tamara Gaines, 48, of Conyers, who pleaded guilty on July 11, 2022.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia is part of the Department of Justice Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force. The Strike Force focuses on investigating and prosecuting defendants associated with foreign-based fraud schemes that disproportionately affect American seniors. These include romance scams, phone scams, mass-mailing fraud schemes, and tech-support fraud schemes. For further information on these scams, see https://www.justice.gov/elderjustice/senior-scam-alert.
This case is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.