Nigerian scams still net victims

Over the years, Mike Okpako has been a secretary, a doctor, an airport director, a diplomat and even a prince.


Now he has a new title, convicted scammer, courtesy of a federal jury.

Okpako, whose birth name is Okpako Mike Diamreyan, is one of those people, according to investigators, responsible for sending those annoying, grammatically incorrect, misspelled e-mails that clutter your computer. The e-mails plead for your help in moving millions from an African bank, company, custom office or warehouse into your bank account.

All you have to do is pay a few thousand up front in "document fees."

Unfortunately, for 52 people, the only money that moved was $1,306,533 from their wallets to his operation, according to a federal court document compiled by investigators.

Diamreyan's take of the $1.3 million was $68,681, the document states.

More importantly, Diamreyan is the rare breed. He is the only person caught and convicted, at least in Connecticut, during the past two decades for involvement in advance fee scams, more

commonly known as a 419 Scam. It's named after a section of the Nigerian Penal Code that criminalizes these acts.

Diamreyan now faces a Friday sentencing before U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall for his conviction on three counts of wire fraud all involving an elderly Shelton resident. Each of the charges carries a maximum 10 years in prison followed by deportation and restitution.

The ship is not coming in

Henry Schissler, who teaches sociology and criminology at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport and Quinnipiac University in Hamden, labeled this conviction as "awesome" and "a feather" in Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Chang's cap. But he believes Hall should send a strong message with a severe sentence.

"One message certainly is not enough, but it is a start," he said. "It's not going to be a magic wand. But it will cause someone to pause and think maybe I'm not really that safe."

By no means is Diamreyan working alone.

In Internet cafes in Africa, scammers routinely fire off e-mails from their laptops. The scammers know the believers, or suckers, are out there. It's just a matter of locating them. And there are many. Since the 1970s, it's estimated victims lost more than $41 billion worldwide to these scams.

Despite the global economic collapse, last year was the scammers' best year. Victims handed more than $9.3 billion, up $3 billion from 2008, according to Ultrascan Advance Global Relations, a Dutch-based criminal research association. The biggest losers? Americans, who lost $2.1 billion in 2009.

"That's astonishing," said Rachel Ranis, an adjunct professor of sociology at Quinnipiac University, when told of the numbers. "It's just crazy that people would allow themselves to fall for this. But they prey on ignorance, the elderly and good, old-fashioned American greed; people want to believe their ship is coming in."

Ultrascan warns 2010 could be even bigger as scammers turn their attention to the emerging market nations like China, India, South Korea and Vietnam where prosperity is growing. While Nigeria may be the birthplace, Ultrascan uncovered teams working in 69 other countries.

The `sucker list'

The scammer teams, according to Supervisory Special Agent Charles Pavelites of the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, include an organizer who manages the operation, people who write the spam as well as any malware or virus attached to it. Others send out e-mails and play the roles. Runners pick up the money and a person collects the funds and arranges for its transportation.

He said once a person is victimized their name lands on "a sucker list," which can be traded among groups.

Lately, Pavelites said, the scammers are asking money to be sent to places like England, Canada and even within the U.S. because victims will "feel more comfortable then sending money there than to Nigeria."

The schemes involve "anything that gets attention." He recalls scams related to Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti and anticipates one involving the Louisiana oil spill. There are tax rebate scams, work-at-home scams, re-shipping scams and escrow scams -- all requiring advance fees.

"As long as people are making money and feeling no fear of prosecution, why would they stop?" said Ranis, the sociology professor. "All you need is a letter, an e-mail list and a send button. Send out 100,000 requests get one or two bites and you're in business."


Not much is known about Diamreyan's background. His visa papers claim he was born in Warri, Nigeria, on March 19, 1978. He attended Prestige Gateway Academy in Accra, Ghana, where he lived until coming to the U.S. in 2008 to marry Martine Janvier in Massachusetts. He has parents and siblings in Africa.

His actions caught the attention of the U.S. Defense Criminal Investigative Service. On July 31, 2009, agents had his belongings inspected at Boston's Logan Airport upon his return from Africa. Michael Carbone, an agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, found cell phones, SIM cards and a thumb drive which provided evidence for the prosecution.

It also gave Richard Lauria and Chris Mehring of DCIS evidence to secure a search warrant for Diamreyan's apartment in Mattapan, Mass.

The e-mails they obtained indicate Diamreyan enlisted help from relatives and friends to work the scams.


Three senior citizens felt the sting of the scams, according to Chang.

Michael Pandelos, a retired international exporter from Shelton lost $71,587; Richard D. Smith, a retired heavy equipment operator from Colorado lost about $59,695 and Mitchell Bender, a retired music teacher from Virginia, lost $51,835.

But all Chang needed to convict Diamreyan on the three wire fraud charges were a phone call from Ghana to Pandelos and two payments totaling $150 wired from Pandelos to Diamreyan, all of which occurred in Connecticut in August 2009.

Pandelos, who has suffered two strokes, the last of which left him with a short-term memory problem, did not testify at Diamreyan's trial.

But Antje Pandelos, his wife, did.

Chang asked her why they stopped sending money.

"Because ... we were broke ... we just didn't have anymore money," she testified. "I said enough, enough. I have not seen any results from anything."

Still Antje. Pandelos said the scammers kept writing and calling.

"So we disconnected the e-mail. We disconnected the phone lines, everything, so they could not contact us anymore ... I have no more computer."

Antje Pandelos angrily recalls the days of e-mails filling their computer; phone calls ringing early in the morning, interrupting lunch and dinner before stopping around midnight and the numerous rubber checks arriving in the mail and bouncing at the bank costing the family even more in fees.

Yet, Michael Pandelos always thought the next one would pay off. He once even traveled to Spain as part of the scam. "We fought constantly about this," Antje Pandelos said.

Now, she suspects this stress led to her heart attack and contributed to her husband's health issues. It also drained their savings accounts and affected their lifestyle.

Scammer strikes again

Bender, who operates a music publishing company and suffers from a hearing loss, had numerous conversations with people he believes are Diplomat Dala and Dr. Michael Koffi, the supposed director of Provident Insurance and Security Co.

"I had many, many conversations with Diplomat Dala," he said. "I dealt a lot of the time through Dr. Koffi."

Investigators suspect Diamreyan played those roles.

Bender got caught up in a scam e-mail claiming to be from Amos and Mary Gomogo, two displaced Sudanese children. They wanted his help to access boxes containing $18.5 million and a quantity of diamonds left them by their late father Vincent. The boxes are in America and they need someone to act as "beneficiary."

Diamreyan as Koffi writes Bender in June, 2007 and tells him:

"...those kids are Sudanese ... and they have no other person here. They are here alone...They are the people who chose you and appointed you to be their beneficiary. They also have to stand in your behalf here to testify before the court that you are their beneficiary to obtain the power of attorney document on your behalf, giving you the legal right to receive the boxes for them, so be wise and casual who you are dealing with."

Koffi asks Bender to send $250 to Mike Okpako, an alias Diamreyan uses, "to obtain the power of attorney document."

"That's the emotional tug," said Schissler, the sociologist and criminologist. "It tends to work nicely, particularly with senior citizens."

By Oct. 5, 2007, a financially distraught Bender e-mails Mary Gomogo (Diamreyan) "You probably know by now that another document that will cost $3,000 is needed. I do not have the money and will not have the money ... I am totally broke."

Of the approximately $51,836 Bender sent, Diamreyan's take was nearly $11,000, according to a federal court document.

Smith, a retired heavy equipment operator in Colorado, was fleeced of $59,695. That bought him a multicolored United Nations clearance certificate determining the $18.5 million is "drug-free, terrorist-free and laundry-free" money; a notice from the Bank of New York that $18.5 million is moving from the Bank of Ghana to them and then to Smith's Centennial Bank of the West account. Then a month later, there was another certificate from the Bank of New York advising him he needs to send an immediate payment of $800 for "the final signing of the funds release order documents to release out the Activation Code for the confirmation of the account to confirm the presence of the funds by your bank."

"I believed I was going to receive money or I would not have sent any," Smith testified.

The scammer's future

On Friday, Chang is expected to urge Hall to send the message Schissler believes is necessary and the Pandeloses want by imposing a lengthy sentence.

The prosecutor may ask for restitution, but the chances of any payback are rare. DCIS can't subpoena records from Diamreyan's bank account because it has no affiliation in the United States.

Jonathan Einhorn, Diamreyan's court-appointed defense lawyer, will urge the judge to be lenient pointing out that the conviction only involves the $150 fleeced from Pandelos and not the $1.3 million taken from 52 others.

"We believe the government is stockpiling victims without proving injury related to Mr. Diamreyan's conduct," he said. "There's no question people fall victim to e-mail scams, rich people, poor people, but the government must prove Mr. Diamreyan is responsible for their losses."

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