Ghanaian woman extradited to US to face over $10m fraud-related charges and ‘sakawa’
The exterior of the U.S. Department of Justice headquarters building in Washington. Photo by Jonathan Ernst
A 33-year-old Ghanaian lady has been extradited to the U.S. to face fraud-related charges.
Deborah Mensah is wanted by the United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation for a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme involving business email compromises and romance scams targeting the elderly.
According to the Justice Department, Ms Mensah who is the eighth defendant charged in the case was extradited from Ghana to the United States on August 21, 2020.
She was arrested on January 16, 2020, in Accra for charges in connection with a fraud conspiracy based in Ghana involving the theft of over $10 million through business email compromises and romance scams that targeted the elderly from at least in or about 2014 through in or about 2018.
Ms Mensah was presented in the Manhattan federal court before U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra Freeman on August 26. Her case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Denise L. Cote.
Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said, “Deborah Mensah is alleged to have been a participant in a conspiracy that resulted in the theft of millions of dollars from businesses and vulnerable individuals across the United States, and the laundering of that money through a network of bank accounts in the Bronx to co-conspirators in Ghana. Now she is in the United States and facing charges under U.S. law.”
FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said, “Ms. Mensah may have believed hiding in Ghana protected her from facing justice for her alleged role in this scheme.
“She now knows the FBI’s reach is global through our formidable network of law enforcement partners. Others should take heed – we won’t go away simply because it may take time to go get you. If you break our laws, you will pay the price.”
IRS-CI Special Agent in Charge Jonathan D. Larsen said, “As alleged in the criminal complaint, Ms Mensah’s desire for money drove her to prey upon the vulnerable in our society. Thanks to the financial expertise of IRS-CI special agents working side-by-side with our law enforcement partners, the long arm of the law caught up to Ms Mensah in Ghana, and she will now face the consequences of her alleged actions.”
Below is the timeline of happenings
From at least in or about 2014 through in or about 2018, Ms Mensah was a member of a criminal enterprise (the “Enterprise”) based in Ghana that committed a series of business email compromises and romance scams against individuals and businesses located across the United States, including in the Southern District of New York.
The objective of the Enterprise’s business email compromise fraud scheme was to trick and deceive businesses into wiring funds into accounts controlled by the Enterprise. First, members of the Enterprise created email accounts with slight variations of email accounts used by employees of a victim company or third parties engaged in business with a company to “spoof” or impersonate those employees or third parties.
These fake email accounts were specifically designed to trick other employees of the company with access to the company’s finances into thinking the fake email accounts were authentic. The fake email accounts were used to send instructions to wire money to certain bank accounts and also included fake authorization letters for the wire transfers that contained forged signatures of company employees.
By using this method of deception, the Enterprise sought to trick the victims into transferring hundreds of thousands of dollars to bank accounts the victims believed were under the control of legitimate recipients of the funds as part of normal business operations, when in fact the bank accounts were under the control of members of the Enterprise, including MENSAH.
The Enterprise conducted the romance scams by using electronic messages sent via email, text messaging, or online dating websites that deluded the victims, many of whom were vulnerable older men and women who lived alone, into believing the victim was in a romantic relationship with a fake identity assumed by members of the Enterprise.
Once members of the Enterprise had gained the trust of the victims using the fake identity, they used false pretenses, such as a shipment of gold or receiving a portion of an investment, to cause the victims to wire money to bank accounts the victims believed were controlled by their romantic interests, when in fact the bank accounts were controlled by members of the Enterprise.
At times, the members of the Enterprise also used false pretenses to cause the victims to receive funds into the victims’ bank accounts, which, unbeknownst to the victims, were fraud proceeds, and to transfer those funds to accounts under the control of members of the Enterprise. The members of the Enterprise, posing as the romantic interest of the victims, also introduced the victims to other individuals purporting to be, for example, consultants or lawyers, who then used false pretenses to cause the victims to wire money to bank accounts controlled by members of the Enterprise.
Ms Mensah and her co-conspirators received or otherwise directed the receipt of over $10 million in fraud proceeds from victims of the Enterprise in bank accounts that she and other members of the Enterprise controlled in the Bronx, New York. Some of these bank accounts were opened using fake names, stolen identities, or shell companies in order to avoid detection and hide the true identities of the members of the Enterprise controlling those accounts.
Once the accused received the fraud proceeds in bank accounts under her control, she withdrew, transported, and laundered those fraud proceeds to other members of the Enterprise, including those located in Ghana. She also used the name and identity of another person to withdraw or otherwise direct the withdrawal of stolen funds.
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Ms Mensah is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, one count of wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, which each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison; one count of receipt of stolen money, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison; one count of conspiracy to receive stolen money, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison; and one count of aggravated identity theft, which carries a mandatory sentence of two years in prison to be served consecutively to any other sentence imposed.
The maximum potential sentences, in this case, are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge.
Other defendants in this case who have been sentenced include Muftau Adamu, a/k/a “Muftau Adams,” a/k/a “Muftau Iddrissu,” 32, of the Bronx, New York, who was sentenced to 51 months in prison on June 7, 2019; Prince Nana Aggrey, 45, of the Bronx, New York, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison on May 10, 2019; and Assana Traore, 41, of the Bronx, New York, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison on October 8, 2019. Adamu and Aggrey each pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and Traore pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to receive stolen money. Each of the defendants was sentenced by Judge Cote.
Any businesses or individuals who believe they may have been the victim of a business email compromise or a romance scam or have information regarding such crimes should file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (“IC3”) at https://www.ic3.gov or contact their local FBI office.
Ms. Strauss praised the outstanding investigative work of the FBI and IRS-CI. Ms. Strauss also thanked the United States Marshals Service, the FBI Legal Attaché in Accra, Ghana, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Office of the Attorney-General & Ministry of Justice of Ghana, and Ghana’s Economic and Organised Crime Office, for their assistance in this case. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs of the Department’s Criminal Division provided significant assistance in securing the defendant’s extradition from Ghana.
The prosecution of this case is being handled by the Office’s Complex Frauds and Cybercrime Unit. Assistant United States Attorneys Sagar K. Ravi and Mitzi Steiner are in charge of the prosecution.
The charges contained in the Complaint and the Indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.