Throughout August 2019 the Nigerian media heavily reported on the US government's actions against Nigerian nationals who have been accused of committing various acts of fraud.

Obinwanne Okeke's arrest

The first reports concerned the arrest of Obinwanne Okeke, who had been celebrated in publications such as Forbes Africa as a successful young entrepreneur. However, it appears that there was insufficient scrutiny of his antecedents as, according to a sworn affidavit by a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent in support of the application for Okeke's arrest, an investigation opened in July 2018 into a complaint about a business email compromise that had caused a $11 million loss to a UK-based company indicated that Okeke had been involved in the fraud and was not the successful business person he appeared to be. He was duly arrested and is being held without bail in the custody of the US Marshalls Office.

Department of Justice issues indictment against Nigerian citizens

Barely two weeks later, the US Department of Justice unsealed a 252-count federal grand jury indictment against 77 named and three unnamed individuals reported to be Nigerians; 14 of the indicted persons were arrested in the United States. The allegations against these persons include business email compromise, escrow and romance frauds. Many of these persons have reportedly fled the United States to Nigeria and other places. In response, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) announced that it would cooperate with the US government to apprehend any of the indicted persons in Nigeria.

Insofar as proceeds from these frauds may have been transferred to Nigeria, tracing the funds to individuals should not, in theory, present an insurmountable challenge. This is because such funds would be routed either through a licensed bank or money transfer service. With respect to banks, in addition to the due diligence they must undertake in respect of account holders, they must obtain details of the bank verification number (BVN) of everyone – individual or corporate – operating a bank account. Therefore, every individual operating a bank account in Nigeria must have a BVN. Associated with every BVN is biometric data, including the individual's photograph, fingerprints and date and place of birth. For Nigerians and persons resident in Nigeria, this information is linked to their national identity number and passport information (in the case of persons who have these) and residence permits for non-Nigerians lawfully resident in the country. In addition, all active telephone lines (almost exclusively mobile lines) must be registered in the same name as the individual whose biometric data is submitted to the service provider.

Consequently, in theory, it should be possible to obtain information about the account holders to which monies are remitted. Tracing the recipients of money transfers may prove to be more challenging, as the identification material that they must provide may not be as authentic as that required of bank account holders. Nevertheless, the EFCC and other Nigerian law enforcement agencies should be able to obtain useful information when attempting to locate these other individuals.

However, having seen how the EFCC deals with complaints relating to internet frauds, many victims will have little confidence in how seriously this matter will be pursued once the media loses interest in the story.

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