TAMPA — It started with a complaint about a clever check-fraud scam that had bilked a small Georgia law firm out of nearly $100,000. The money wound up in a bank account in Tampa but then vanished into other accounts overseas, spurring the interest of local FBI agents.
What followed was an investigation that has stretched on now for six years, ensnared 13 defendants and uprooted a complex international fraud scheme responsible for losses in excess of $10 million, agents and federal prosecutors say.
The probe reached its zenith last month when a man who who helped orchestrate the scheme appeared in a Tampa courtroom to face a sentence of 15 years in federal prison.
Ikechuwku “Ike” Amadi, 38, is a dual Canadian and Nigerian citizen. He worked, according to the FBI, with a Nigeria-based criminal organization known as the Black Axe Group.
The conspirators “sit in Internet cafes in Nigeria and conduct fraud online,” said FBI Special Agent Devin Williams, who headed the investigation.
The Black Axe started as a fraternal organization on college campuses in Nigeria in the 1970s. It eventually evolved into an organized crime group. In the United States and around the world, the group is responsible for the loss of millions of dollars through a variety of elaborate cons.
They include what are known as “romance scams,” where conspirators pose as potential suitors on dating websites. They follow detailed scripts to gradually charm their victims, often lonely widows. In some cases, the fraudsters conduct research about the victim’s hometown and claim to live in an area nearby. The aim is to eventually lure victims with a phony investment opportunity, convincing them to cash in their retirement savings or home equity and wire it into a bank account in the United States.
Other scams targeted title companies with phony cashier’s checks for fake real estate transactions. Still others targeted businesses and law firms through email spoofing and hacking schemes.
The Tampa case started as a tip from a law firm in Columbus, Ga. The firm lost about $96,000 through a fraud in which someone posed as a business owner seeking payment of a debt from another company. Partial payment was made in the form of a cashier’s check made out to the firm. A lawyer was then instructed to wire the funds to a Bank of America account in Tampa. Only after the money left the account did the lawyer learn the cashier’s check was fake.
FBI agents found that the bank account belonged to an associate of a Tampa man, Muhammad Naji. Naji eventually cooperated with FBI agents. He explained that he worked for a man from Canada, whom he knew only as “Melvin.”
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Melvin was Ike Amadi. From his perch in Toronto, Canada, he orchestrated a network of people like Naji who are described in court records as “money mules.” Their job was to open bank accounts, often in the names of shell companies, that would store the ill-gotten monies as deposits. As soon as the money arrived, the mules would send it overseas before the theft could be discovered.
The money mules received 5 to 10 percent of the stolen funds. Amadi also got a cut. The rest went to the Black Axe.
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Naji helped identify other mules. They included Priscilla Ellis, a Texas woman who also helped create high-quality forgeries of checks and other documents. After her conviction in federal court, she made headlines when she tried to arrange the contract killings of witnesses who had testified against her. Her prison release date is nearly a century away.
Amandi was arrested in Canada in 2015. He fought extradition to the United States but eventually agreed to be sent to Tampa.
He pleaded guilty in July to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud. In a memo filed before his October sentencing, his attorney, Victor Martinez, wrote that Amadi donated his ill-gotten gains to family and friends in need and convinced himself that the people from whom he stole were millionaires who could afford the loss.
He realized he was wrong, Martinez wrote, when he read transcripts of victim testimony from his co-defendants’ trials.
“Ike realized that these victims weren’t multimillionaires or simply names on a computer screen,” the lawyer wrote. “They are real people; women, retired like his mother who now requires his assistance and protection, yet Ike treated the victims exactly the opposite.”
The monetary losses attributed to Amadi totaled more than $10 million. The 15-year-sentence issued by U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday was at the high end of what federal guidelines suggested.