Feds Arrest 6 In Catfishing, COVID-19 Fraud Enterprise

By Rachel Scharf
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Law360 (February 18, 2021, 6:47 PM EST) -- Manhattan federal prosecutors said Wednesday they had busted a $55 million fraud and money laundering ring that involved spoofing, catfishing and coronavirus relief schemes, arresting six men across four states.

Prosecutors said the men faked identities and business interests to dupe companies, elderly online daters and the Small Business Administration into wiring funds to at least 60 bank accounts. They then funneled the money to Ghana by buying up cars and food products and shipping the goods overseas, the government alleged.

The defendants facing charges are Farouk Appiedu, 35, Fred Asante, 35, Calvin Freeman, 37, Lord Aning, 28, Sadick Edusei Kissi, 24 and Faisal Ali, 34. Appiedu was arrested in Queens on Oct. 18, and Kissi was arrested in Fargo, North Dakota, on Feb. 5, the government said. The rest of the men were arrested in New Jersey and Virginia on Wednesday, according to prosecutors.

"The fraud schemes alleged that these defendants facilitated were lucrative, diverse and most of all, callous," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement Wednesday. "Thanks to the determination of the IRS and FBI, these defendants face serious prison time, and their next online profiles could potentially appear in a place where they'll be unable to catfish anymore — the website for the Bureau of Prisons."

According to criminal complaints and indictments, the six men ran a variety of schemes to pilfer a total of $55 million between 2013 and 2020. In one scheme, the men allegedly forged fake romantic relationships with elderly people via email, text messages and online dating sites. They then convinced victims to wire money to either themselves or purported third parties, such as consultants or lawyers, prosecutors said.

Ali at one point allegedly claimed to be a diamond retailer in need of money to pay taxes and convinced a 57-year-old woman to send him $130,000. In another instance, Ali posed as a female Ghanian model and duped a 64-year-old man into wiring him $39,000 allegedly needed to leave the country, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said the men also garnered funds through a business spoofing scheme, in which they tricked companies into sending them funds by sending emails posing as company employees or business partners. The men then sent fake authorization letters for the money transfers complete with forged signatures from company employees, prosecutors said.

In a third scheme, the men allegedly submitted fraudulent loan applications to the SBA and received funds from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, which was expanded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to provide small businesses with low-interest loans amid the pandemic.

The proceeds from all these schemes were allegedly directed to accounts the men had opened in the name of fake businesses falsely associated with car sales, food imports and exports and freight shipping. The men then used the funds to purchase cars, food products and other goods from U.S.-based suppliers and ship the products to Ghana in an attempt to launder the money undetected, prosecutors said.

All the men are charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to receive stolen money. Appiedu, Asante, Freeman and Aning were also charged with wire fraud, and they and Kissi were further charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and receipt of stolen money.

Ali, who allegedly opened some of his bank accounts under a Massachusetts resident's stolen identity, was also charged with making false statements to a bank and aggravated identity theft.

Counsel for Ali, Freeman and Appiedu did not respond Thursday to requests for comment. Counsel information for Asante, Aning and Kissi was not immediately available.

The government is represented by Sagar K. Ravi and Mitzi Steiner of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.

Ali and Freedman are represented by Camille Marie Abate.

Appiedu is represented by Jeffrey Benson Einhorn of the Law Offices of Jeffrey Lichtman and Patrick J. Joyce of The Law Offices of Patrick Joyce.

The cases are USA v. Kissi, case number 1:21-cr-00064, USA v. Ali, case number 1:21-mj-01774, and USA v. Appiedu et al., case number 1:21-cr-00088, all in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

--Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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