‘Operation Wire Wire’: Dozens arrested in global takedown of business scammers

WASHINGTON —  Federal authorities disrupted a global scheme, with roots in the U.S., on Monday that’s responsible for defrauding businesses and individual entrepreneurs of more than $3.7 billion in recent years.

The victims, according to an FBI statement, ranged from small to large-sized companies. They transferred large amounts of money and sometimes sensitive records to criminals operating what’s known as international business email compromise and email account compromise schemes.

The FBI, Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Treasury, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service engaged in a six-month sweep that led to the seizure of approximately $2.4 million, and the disruption and recovery of approximately $14 million in fraudulent wire transfers.

The effort, called Operation Wire Wire, resulted in “74 arrests in the U.S. and overseas, including 42 in the U.S., 29 in Nigeria, and three in Canada, Mauritius, and Poland,” the statement said.

Over the course of the last 12 months, agents in Miami have indicted 23 suspects in south Florida who are part of the transnational fraud ring, said Matthew Quinn, special agent in charge of the Secret Service Office of Communications.

Matthew Quinn: The biggest change we've seen is the rise in computer banking (WTOP's J.J. Green)

“This boils down to the unauthorized access via hacking or spoofing someone’s email to send information to either a corporation, a corporate finance office or to an individual account that initiates a wire transfer,” Quinn said.

The 23 arrested, according to Quinn, were a part of what’s called “the ground game — a coordinated network of money mules that fraudulently open bank accounts under false pretenses for the sole purpose of receiving the stolen money.”

International business email compromise, or BEC, is often initiated overseas by fraud scheme leaders who direct the operation and manage a network of “money mules” in the U.S.

The term “mule,” which is often associated with the drug trade, refers to people hired to smuggle contraband into the U.S. for nominal fees at the direction of major transnational criminal enterprises. In this case, said Quinn, “the mules are smuggling money out of the country, but they’re not carrying the cash themselves.”

The Secret Service said its Miami agents can attribute “upward of $10 million in loss to the 23 money mules currently under federal indictment.”

Investigators believe as many as 1,000 mules are actively operating around the nation. Authorities said estimating the true scope and scale of the scheme is difficult but believed to exceed $1 billion.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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