The Department of Justice is seen, March 22, 2019, in Washington.
The Department of Justice is seen, March 22, 2019, in Washington.

WASHINGTON - Nearly 300 people — the bulk in Nigeria and the U.S. — have been arrested in an internationally coordinated law enforcement operation aimed at disrupting a multibillion-dollar internet scam, the U.S. Justice Department announced Tuesday.

The four-month global operation netted a total of 281 arrests worldwide, including 167 in Nigeria and 74 in the United States. Arrests were also made in Turkey, Ghana, France, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Malaysia and Britain. The operation, dubbed reWired, led to the seizure of nearly $3.7 million, the Justice Department said.

Among those arrested in Nigeria were 77 Nigerian suspects recently indicted in the United States on conspiracy charges of swindling businesses and individuals through a variety of internet scams, Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission said.

The Nigerians allegedly used so-called Business Email Compromise schemes, “romance fraud” and schemes targeting the elderly to steal millions of dollars from their victims in the United States and elsewhere before transferring the funds to Nigeria through an extensive money laundering network, according to a 252-count federal grand jury indictment unsealed last month.

Others arrested during the recent operation face similar charges.

In the southern U.S. state of Georgia, two Nigerian nationals were arrested in connection with fraudulently directing a transfer of $3.5 million from a health care provider to accounts across the United States. In Miami, two others were charged with laundering more than $950,000 of proceeds of BEC scams and recruiting about 18 others to serve as “money mules.”

Widely used by Nigerian fraudsters, Business Email Compromise schemes involve targeting employees with access to company finances and tricking them into making unauthorized wire transfers into accounts controlled by swindlers.

$26 billion online scam

According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, Business Email Compromise is a $26 billion online scam. Last year, BEC and its variant, Email Account Compromise, resulted in losses of nearly $1.3 billion, nearly twice as much as 2017.

Operation reWired was part of the Justice Department’s intensified efforts in recent years to crack down on internet financial fraud. Among other measures, the department has set up an internal BEC Counteraction Group to coordinate cases.

Through the arrests, "we’re sending a clear message to the criminals who orchestrate these BEC schemes: We’ll keep coming after you, no matter where you are,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said. “And to the public, we’ll keep doing whatever we can to protect you.”

U.S. and Nigerian officials credited the mass arrests to close cooperation and coordination between their law enforcement agencies.

"Our efforts in coordinating the EFCC/FBI joint operations in Nigeria recorded tremendous successes" against "the infamous yahoo-yahoo boys," said the EFCC's director of information, Mohammed Abba, according to AFP.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said the Justice Department has “increased efforts” to combat cyber-enabled financial crimes.

“The coordinated efforts with our domestic and international law enforcement partners around the world has made these most recent actions more successful,” Rosen said.

U.S. officials didn't say whether they have asked Nigerian authorities to extradite the suspects wanted in multiple U.S. jurisdictions from California to Florida.

Hassan Mohammed Hassan, Nigeria’s deputy ambassador to the U.S., told VOA last month that Nigeria will consider any extradition request based on a “verifiable” case.

Last year, a law enforcement operation aimed at BEC scams resulted in the arrest of 74 people and the seizure of $2.4 million, according to the Justice Department.