ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
A Nigerian man who helped cheat two Jefferson County brothers out of $115,000 pleaded guilty in St. Louis this week in a rare U.S.-based prosecution of a popular Internet-based fraud.
Femi Ikuopenikan, 35, who lived in Houston before his arrest, pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday of conspiracy to defraud the U.S.
The scammers Ikuopenikan worked for had set up an unauthorized Internet-based bank called Hallmark Trust Financial, and in 2003 convinced one of the brothers, referred to in court only as "W.O.," that he could earn $6.7 million simply by transferring some money to the bank, according to an affidavit by FBI Agent Derek Schoon.
The other brother, "D.O.," eventually became involved as well, according to court testimony.
The fraud is commonly known as the "Nigerian scam" or "419 fraud," for a section of the Nigerian criminal code. Victims are told that for a small payment of taxes, customs fees or expenses, they can earn millions helping government officials or diplomats spirit money out of the country.
There are many variations, but they all operate on the same principle: Victims send thousands of dollars overseas and get nothing but embarrassment in return.
The cases are rarely prosecuted in Nigeria, because the government has little sympathy for "victims" who participate under the assumption that they are defrauding the Nigerian government.
U.S. prosecutions are rare because the scammers operate mainly from overseas and conceal their identities.
Ikuopenikan was just a foot soldier, defense lawyer Richard Sindel said.
The Jefferson County brothers were becoming suspicious of the scheme, so the scammers recruited Ikuopenikan when he went back to Nigeria for a wedding, Sindel said. Ikuopenikan was supposed to give the scammers more legitimacy by pretending to be a diplomat coming to St. Louis to deliver the money.
Ikuopenikan had the misfortune to try to get more money out of the brothers when the FBI was already involved, court documents show. He was arrested in Houston but fled to Canada after being released on bond and was returned to the U.S. last month.
Ikuopenikan could face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 when he is sentenced in February, but he is likely to get two years or less in prison, according to court documents.