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International Crime Ring Sets Up in West Virginia College Town

Huntington, West Virginia is an idyllic college town, but it’s also the epicenter of an internet crime ring

spinner image Illustration of the state of West Virginia with shadowy figures and symbols for money and fraud

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spinner image graphic quote saying "This wasn't a crime limited to the Southern District of West Virginia, or to Huntington. It had a nationwide effect, plus a lot of the money ended up in countries in Africa.
Full Transcript


[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] Bob: I mean just the depth of the kinds of fraud. This is like they were running a, like a big mega-mall of fraud or something.

[00:00:11] Katie Robison: I think network is the better word. It's just crazy. It's just like this whole fraud ecosystem. There's all kinds of different types and you have just the sheer number of people that are involved is staggering. There's so many people that it takes to make these schemes work.


[00:00:29] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. Today we're taking you to a small pastoral college town in western West Virginia. So far west it's right on the Kentucky border. When the leaves turn in the fall you can imagine why someone would call it almost heaven, Huntington, West Virginia, is famous as the home of Marshall University, which in the 1970s suffered one of the saddest disasters in the history of US sports, a charter flight crashed killing most of the school's football team back then. A great movie, "We Are Marshall" starring Matthew McConaughey tells that story. Huntington has suffered other tragedies too; it's been called the epicenter of America's opioid addiction crisis. Still, it's a pretty small community of 50,000 that you might never expect to be the epicenter of a massive international internet crime ring. But as we'll learn today, however small and quiet your community, the same thing could be happening where you live.

[00:01:40] Huntington, West Virginia, is a college town. It's where Marshall University is located at. It sits on the banks of the Ohio River. If you've ever watched the movie, "We Are Marshall" it's featured prominently in that. It's very close a border city; it borders both Ohio and Kentucky within three to four miles.

[00:01:58] Bob: That's William Thompson, a federal prosecutor based in nearby Charleston, West Virginia.

[00:02:041:41] Oh, Iit's a really cute town. It's a college town. So there's a lot of good restaurants there, and then it's pretty lively. Unfortunately, Huntington's also been struggling with the opioid crisis a lot during recent years. It's one of the towns that you always hear about when you hear about, you know, somebody overdoses and such, so it, it's working on that. But you know the community's really banded together, and there's definitely a sense of community there.

[00:02:2907] Bob: But something curious was happening in Huntington for the past few years and, well it's a good thing Katie Robison, also a federal prosecutor based in Charleston, is on the job.

[00:02:4019] Katie Robison: I've been with the DOJ since 2016. I started at the money laundering and asset recovery section, and I became an Assistant United States Attorney in 2019.

[00:02:5128] Bob: What drew you to this kind of work?

[00:02:5331] Katie Robison: Well my dad was in law enforcement,  so I, I guess I grew up around it and I always, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, and I always wanted to be a prosecutor, and hopefully bring good cases and, try to bring some justice to the world in my own small way.

[00:03:062:47] Bob: So Katie hadn't been with the DOJ very long when something pretty remarkable crosses her desk.

[00:03:132:53] Katie Robison: Well there was a bank report, it started like right after I just got to the US Attorney's Office. WAnd there, we had learned that there was a woman in Huntington, West Virginia, who had received millions and millions of dollars in her bank account from people, there were so many people all around the world, all throughout the United States. They had all been sending deposits to this one woman. We went back through the bank records, and we found out that this woman had been sending millions of dollars to Nigeria.

[00:03:4224] Bob: What did it feel like to find out that there was a woman in Huntington who's had millions of dollars going in and out of her account.

[00:03:4831] Katie Robison: I was really shocked. The first person who that, who found out was an investigator in our office, so he pretty much bolted over, told me, and we were just like, "Oh my gosh, wow." And so I actually had to call someone back in DC to say, like, what do I do?

[00:04:023:54] Bob: Millions and millions of dollars moving in and out of this one woman's bank account? At least some of it ultimately headed to Nigeria? So Katie and her team start investigating. First through bank records and then through interviews.

[00:04:181] Katie Robison: So we saw where a lot of the money went to, but then also we started talking to the people that were sending her money. And then, from there, you learn that these people are sending this woman money 'cause they believe they're sending it in her care to give to someone that they think they're in a relationship with or friends with that they met online. And then they start telling you about other people that they've sent money to to get to their, the person that they think is their romantic partner or friend or so on. And that's when we learned about this group of young men in Huntington who were also laundering these raw funds.

[00:04:5446] Bob: This group of young men who were also laundering funds for Huntington. So somehow, criminals were talking to people all around the country, lying to them, seducing them, persuading them to send money to lovers or to people in need, but that money really went to this woman in town and then to a small group of young men, a crime ring based in Huntington. The stories the criminals told the victims to get them to send money ran the gamut.

[00:05:2517] Katie Robison: They'll develop this whole fake persona. For example, one person pretended he was a man named Martin Baum. He falls in love with multiple women, Hhe says that he's working overseas. I think he may have been some engineer that was working on a boat. Often people will say they're an oil rig worker. They'll come up with some reason why they don't have access to US bank accounts that can sound, you know, somewhat plausible before they start asking the victims to send them money. And they'll start asking for small amounts of money at first, usually something that really, you know, maybe if you knew someone, you don't mind sending that much at first, and then over time, as they keep talking to these victims, the victims think that they're in a loving relationship with these fake identities. They'll start asking for more and more money, and that's when it starts you know really accumulating.

[00:06:173] Bob: Those stories are remarkable, and some of them involve things like fan clubs for famous people, right?

[00:06:2318] Katie Robison: Oh yes, exactly. I think there was one for Blake Shelton, and you know it was, she thought she was paying this money so she could meet Blake Shelton, and then it would just keep increasing, increasing, increasing, and then at some point, you know, the victim learned, oh, this is not real. This money is not actually going to Blake Shelton for his fan club.

[00:06:4338] Bob: And, during COVID, this team of thieves even figures out how to profit from that.

[00:06:494] Katie Robison: The victims will sometimes share their own banking information with the members of the fraud scheme. And the people in the fraud scheme will apply for SBA loans or other types of loans like a lot of the pandemic relief stuff in the victims' names, and they'll make up these fake businesses that need the loans for whatever fake event, they'll get the money deposited into the victims' accounts, and then because the people on the fraud team already have access to these accounts because the victims shared it with them, you know, they just take the money out of the account and move it to themselves, but when law enforcement is trying to find out who sent this false application and got all this pandemic assistance that they weren't entitled to, the first person they're going to come to is the victim. So it can, it can be really hard investigating these.

[00:07:3429] Bob: I mean just the depth of the kinds of fraud. This is like they were running a, like a big mega-mall of fraud or something.

[00:07:4338] Katie Robison: Oh, for sure. Um, it's really, I think network is the better word. It's just crazy. It's just like this whole fraud ecosystem. There's all kinds of different types and you have just the sheer number of people that are involved is staggering. There's so many people that it takes to make these schemes work.

[00:08:007:56] Bob: The key to making the schemes work is to find a way to move money out of the United States that doesn't arouse suspicion. That's where money mules come in.

[00:08:1107] Katie Robison: So sometimes the victims will send money to somebody like the first woman we talked about. And the first woman, she might send money after she gets these victims' money, she might send it directly overseas. She might be so brave as to do that. A lot of times though, this, people like the first, the first link in the chain almost, the first woman, she'll send it to someone else located in the United States. Someone like our young men in Huntington. And then they will get money from lots of other different people like the first woman, first layer money mules is a term that we use. They collect this money in their account, and then they transfer it maybe to other people located in the United States, people in bigger cities like Chicago, or New York, or they'lland so on, or they'll just go ahead and transfer it straight to countries overseas like Ghana or Nigeria, and it’s all, this whole time though, they're taking out some of the money that's transferred because that's their, their commission, their cut of being involved in this fraud scheme. And that's why the scheme is able to keep going and going and going.

[00:09:173] Bob: So why Huntington? Well, as a small college town, that makes it an ideal place to find money mules, particularly for criminals trying to move money overseas.

[00:09:3024] Katie Robison: Foreign nationals who had come over here on student visas, and that was very important because it did not raise any red flags to banks that these people were getting these transactions and then sending the money, and they were all from different countries in Africa to the countries in Africa since they are from these countries originally. And so you know their role was important letting the scheme go on undetected for so long.

[00:09:561] Bob: That makes a lot of sense. I never thought about that, but yeah, so it would, would be natural for them to be sending money home, right?

[00:10:0109:57] Katie Robison: Exactly.

[00:10:0209:57] Bob: And are they cutting it up into smaller lots, so it raises less suspicion?

[00:10:072] Katie Robison: Yeah, yeah, they are, that's an important part. So sometimes, for example, you might have a victim and your victim thinks she is sending money to people that the money's going to go to her boyfriend, and she wants to send, you know, $20,000. So instead of sending $20,000 to one person to help lower suspicion in banks, 'cause you know, they're looking out for these transfers that might be a little bit suspicious, she'll send it $5000 to four different people. And these four different people all might be working together and then they might all send it to one person that they're working with. That person will put the $20,000 and then use one of the online currency, or they might send it in smaller chunks to others located in the US, and it, it really just depends, and they try to vary it as to keep from drawing suspicion and also to conceal the different transactions and to add layers to the transactions so it's harder for law enforcement to keep moving up the criminal pyramid and find people who are ultimately responsible for creating these fake identities.

[00:11:150] Bob: I'm surprised to know that there are regionally based crime groups in the US committing this kind of fraud.

[00:11:2117] Katie Robison: Yeah, we do think that, and it's not, and sometimes the people, our group just happened to all live in Huntington, they happen to all know each other, they were friends socially. But sometimes, you know, you don't all live by each other, so maybe you live in Huntington and you're working with someone who lives in Texas or Tennessee or whatnot, but it is just the organization that goes into this, I think if more people knew how organized they were, it would really be shocking.

[00:11:493] Bob: Remember, Katie is new to her job and she works in West Virginia. She does not expect to be hunting after an international crime ring in a nearby college town. It takes Katie and her fellow investigators a while to track down the principle players all the while keeping that investigation quiet so none of the suspects gets tipped off. But within a few months, the big day comes. Takedown day.

[00:12:151] Bob: What was the big break in the case?

[00:12:183] Katie Robison: Oh gosh, um, I don't, I don't know if there was a one moment I would say, besides once we first found out about it, it would probably be once we, we had talked, we had interviewed a lot of victims. Um, there are so many victims involved in this case, and so, and we saw a lot of the bank records. And we finally got to a point where we thought we could get an indictment and charge a group of individuals. And so we did. So the biggest thing probably was -- in law enforcement we call it takedown day after an indictment you go and arrest everybody and maybe you search their houses or seize, you know, assets if you can. And so that was probably the biggest day in the case, because that was the first time we really saw a lot of them face to face, and they got interviewed and people, some of the co-conspirators started cooperating.

[00:13:1207] Bob: I'm sure there's an awful lot of preparation for that.

[00:13:1409] Katie Robison: Oh my God, yes. It was. So we had, I think they were, I can't remember how many states they were located, but it was more than five, 'cause they were all spread out by this time. So we had prepared teams where someone went to, one was living in Virginia, someone went to Virginia. One had moved to another part of West Virginia, so one was, you know, fairly local here. One was still in Huntington, one was in Georgia, somebody else was in South Dakota, you know, and so there's just so much planning and preparation with everyone to make sure that everybody was getting arrested around the same time so that they can't call each other, tip off people, but you also have to coordinate this so that everyone you know can remain safe and carry out these arrests in a safe manner. We also had one defendant who we just couldn't find at first. You know, because like you don't think about this when you, if, unless you do it all the time, but if you have to physically find these people to arrest them, and he, he just moved a lot, so it was very hard to find him and then we finally did find him about a week later, because we got a, it's called a ping warrant for his phone, and we were able to track his phone and see where he went and finally, and the Secret Service agent at the time, I, I was not thrilled when I first found this out, but he just sent him a text saying, "We have a warrant for your arrest, sir." You know, "Please give us a call." And then so we were finally able, he got a lawyer, and then came to Huntington and get him arrested and processed and carried on the case.

[00:14:483] Bob: (chuckles) You know on TV I'm picturing somebody kicking in a door, but they just texted him and said, "Hey, you're, we're going to arrest you. Come on in." That’s funny.

[00:14:535] Katie Robison: Yes.

[00:14:536] Bob: Ultimately on takedown day, nine suspects are indicted ranging from age 23 to age 30. And they're arrested for participating in this elaborate set of internet-based crimes. The one-on-one interviews are illuminating.

[00:154:152] Katie Robison: So I was here, I stayed in Charleston while all this was going on and the agents were doing all the interviews and arrests, and then they would call, and do updates, then after they came for their initial appearances, the people who wanted to cooperate, that's when we started meeting and we hold these things called debriefings, and that's when, you know, if they want to cooperate, they would tell us the information that they know, and also, some of them told us just how these fraud schemes work and how prevalent they are, and the organization that goes into them.

[00:15:422] Bob: I’m picturinge at least some of these are college kids, far away from home, who, you know, maybe got caught up in something. I mean, What kind of feeling did you get when talking you talked to them?

[00:15:5335] Katie Robison: Yeah, some of them, they're not, some of them were and some of them, a couple of them were a little bit older, and maybe not as naive, but it was, it was definitely interesting because on one point, you know, like they're humans too, you want them to make good choices and do the right things. But on the other point, just the sheer numbers that they would talk about and the amount of numbers is just staggering. You know and at some point you're like, how can you keep doing this and engaging in this with all this money?

[00:16:2314] Bob: How could they keep doing it? Well, in some cases, these students studying far from home, they feel intense pressure from home. College students, it turns out, make excellent money mules even if they don't necessarily want to do the job.

[00:16:433] Bob: Did any of them get emotional during your conversations?

[00:16:436] Katie Robison: Yes, one of them, in particular, got every upset because the other thing that we just don't think about is there's a lot of pressure to join these schemes. Because if you've left home, you know, you're in the US, but a lot of your family members are back in Nigeria or Ghana, and in Nigeria in particular, there's a real gang problem. And a lot of the gangs are also involved in these fraud schemes, and so they can threaten people to like use their bank accounts or it's, it's not normally threaten them to join, but if you realize what's going on and you want to leave at some point, it's hard to leave these schemes 'cause your relatives at home could possibly be in danger.

[00:17:2919] Bob: That makes a lot of sense of it, that's, that kind of terrifying.

[00:17:323] Katie Robison: It, it really is.

[00:17:325] Bob: With the suspects rounded up, and the initial debriefing's underway, the case lands on the desk of William Thompson, a longtime circuit court judge, he has just started the job as US Attorney running the Southern District of West Virginia.

[00:17:540] William Johnson: First I heard about it was, I was briefed both by my 1st Assistant US Attorney as well, Ms. Robison, as well as some of the investigators. Some of them I knew from my state court experience. Basically gave me an overview of how this was a romance type scam, how it worked, who the players were, and what the next steps in both the investigation as well as the litigation that was to follow. What seemed remarkable about it was that the sheer size of it, the geographic outreach. This wasn't a crime that was just limited to the Southern District of West Virginia, or to Huntington. Had a nationwide effect, plus there was a lot of internet national aspects to it as well, because a lot of the money ended up in countries in Africa.

[00:18:322] Bob: A lot of people though at this point have heard of internet crimes, have heard of romance scams, you know, they might even know that you know many of these criminals ultimately are overseas in places like Africa. I think they'd be really surprised to find out that Huntington, West Virginia, was a, a center for this kind of international crime. Were you surprised?

[00:18:532] William Johnson: I was, I was very surprised. And like I said, a lot of the perpetrators were international students. Some of, some of them do have ties to Marshall University. I actually got to meet a couple of the perpetrators, and they are not the typical criminal defendants that we deal with in this office. They were very educated, very bright. Unfortunately, they were taking advantage of those skills to perpetrate these frauds.

[00:19:043] Bob: So the investigation and prosecution are both unusual.

[00:19:098:58] William Johnson: We had one cooperated very quickly when uh he was first approached. Got to meet with him. He is what led us to a lot of the people that were involved. Very, a very bright individual. You would not think of him of being a international fraudster.

[00:19:1923] Bob: But he was, and like the other money mules involved, he generally got to keep a big cut, perhaps 20% of the money he laundered.

[00:19:303] William Johnson: I think he downplayed it a little bit how he was caught up. I think he knew what he was doing, obviously, but there was some pressure from his home country from criminals there putting some pressure on him to get to do this, but he also did this for one of the most basic human desires, and that was greed. He profited off of doing this. He was making money while he was committing this crime.

[00:19:4852] Bob: So just to put a fine point on it, this, the folks who were arrested, the folks who were in Huntington, were they engaging in the actual phone calls and romance scams or were they just transferring money, or what was their precise role?

[00:20:004] William Johnson: They were both. Some of them were actually engaging in the actual online persona, but most of them were people who were moving the money around. And it was because they had access to US banks, so they could open up a bank account.

[00:20:127] Bob: And my understanding is that because these were international students from these countries that made the transactions, it's a little less suspicious, right?

[00:20:1924] William Johnson: Yes, I mean nobody was really going to question the fact that somebody that was an international student sending money back to their home city or home country. I mean you would expect that. I mean I've got a kid in college right now and if you look at my bank account, money gets transferred to him. You know, it just happens. Somebody could come here and be an international student and take a job, and would be sending some money back. Now the money actually became quite large, that's actually one of the reasons that we became aware of is by the amounts of the money. It was money that was not something that a college student would be sending back to their family.

[00:20:537] Bob: Both Katie and William, you could probably tell listening to them, have a pretty even handed view of the co-conspirators involved. These weren't hardened criminals. On the other hand, they did some terrible things to innocent people.

[00:21:0711] Bob: Is there anything that stuck out to you as particularly sad or painful from the victims' stories?

[00:21:126] William Johnson: Just the amount of money they lost and the station of life that they lost it. I mean a lot of people, you know, the typical American dream is you work hard so you can retire and enjoy your golden years, and these people were preyed upon and a lot of times they came right after a big loss, you know, such as the death of a spouse or a loved one, and the fact that they're essentially a lot of their life savings was wiped out. And they're not in the stage of life where they could replenish that. That was really particularly heartbreaking. I mean I've got older parents of my own, and um, I worry about them. But these weren't violent criminals. I mean they weren't using guns and bombs (inaudible)to rob people, they were using their intellect.

[00:21:515] Bob: When the investigation is complete, the DOJ says at least two hundred people were victimized, many over 65 years old. The criminals stole at least $2.5 million from them, and so Katie and the DOJ decide to prosecute as many of the suspects as they can. Even that first woman we discussed. She'd initially thought she was in love with one of the criminals, but ultimately she chose to get in on the crime.

[00:22:19:23] Katie Robison: She was indicted and she eventually pled guilty and was prosecuted. She was definitely a harder case because this was an older individual, but you know at a certain point when people are involved in this, like she had initially thought she was in a relationship with someone, she then realized she wasn't, and she still kept laundering money and it's, you know, that's a very difficult call to make whether this person should be prosecuted or not. So based on the facts of the case, we felt that you know she should be held accountable for her actions, 'cause her actions hurt a lot of people throughout the country.

[00:22:583:02] Bob: That's the second story I've heard this week about someone who, you know, perhaps got involved um, innocently, you know, as a victim, but then over time, even after being made aware that they were participating in a crime, kept doing that and then faced prosecution. Is, is that something you've seen before?

[00:23:159] Katie Robison: It, it is. Unfortunately, I will, I will say it's common, but it's no, it's not as uncommon as it should be, if that makes any sense.

[00:23:2318] Bob: Sometimes it's hard to know whether this person was initially a victim and then joined the criminal enterprise or was just in on the crime all along. Which one is this, do you think? is still sort of under, we call it under the ether, you know, of, of the criminal been convinced that, you know, you're in on it too. The feds are in on it too or whatnot, but then other people are consciously committing a crime and reaping the benefits of it. So which one was this do you think?

[00:23:3544] Katie Robison: So for her case, you know, she had started and she, she actually never really sent the fraud ring her own personal money. So she was always, you know, she thought she was just initially, she thought she was doing a favor for the person she thought was her boyfriend. She's then told by multiple different people, you're, you know, you're involved in a fraud, with a fraud group, like stop this. Stop moving this money. Stop sharing your bank information. Stop doing this. And she's told repeatedly, and she had multiple bank accounts closed, and she just would not stop.

[00:24:109] Bob: That's really sad actually.

[00:24:1220] Katie Robison: It, it is incredibly sad.

[00:24:1422] Bob: Within just a few months, all but one of the suspects plead guilty to various crimes. Their sentences vary. Patricia Dudding, the woman who started the case, was sentenced to three months in prison followed by three years supervised release, and ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution. John Nassy received five years’ probation and ordered to pay $40,000 after admitting he received $148,000 he knew were criminal proceeds. Kenneth Ogudu also known as Kenneth Lee, was sentenced to 2 years and 2 months in prison, 3 years supervised release and ordered to pay $324,000 in restitution.

[00:24:5825:06] Katie Robison: One went to trial. It was this past summer, and it lasted about a week.

[00:25:0312] Bob: And as you mentioned, lots of papers, lots of details, right?

[00:25:0615] Katie Robison: Yes, there was a lot of bank records, several victims testified in trial, it was very emotional, and you know he, he also testified himself, so that was something. I think one of them just, he had recently lost his wife, because these scams really prey on very vulnerable people and not only are they often older, but you know they're going through something in life, and like that's why sometimes they're so lonely that they get attached to these people. And we were just asking reaching questions, and then you could just start seeing him start to tear up and it, you know, it was just really sad watching that in trial.

[00:25:519] Bob: According to the DOJ, this suspect, Abdul Inusah, used false personas to induce victims into believe they were in a romantic relationship or a friendship, or a business relationship. One of these false personas, Miarama, persuaded an Alabama resident to provide $106,000 via wire transfers and cashier’s checks. Another false persona, Grace, persuaded a Washington resident to wire funds so "Grace" could maintain her South African cocoa plantation and move to the United States to marry the victim. Other victims of the false personas included residents of Ohio and Florida. Ultimately, the jury finds Inusah guilty of receipt of stolen money, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and two counts of wire fraud. The son of former lawmaker in Ghana, Inusah faces up to 50 years in prison. As of this recording, he's not been sentenced yet.

[00:26:4958] Bob: So what did it feel like when you got convictions in this case?

[00:26:537:00] Katie Robison: It was a good feeling. It can be hard. Being a white- collar prosecutor definitely comes with its own set of challenges, 'cause you work so hard on these cases, they're so hard to put together. If you go to trial, it's really hard, just because there's so many documents, so many witnesses, and then you get to sentencing, a lot of times, you know, for some of the reasons we talked about like these people are very sympathetic, they don't really have a criminal history. Like they just don't get very long jail sentences. You know, that's just a fact of life unfortunately. And that, that can be hard, but then you have to remind yourself, you know, you're doing this really for not even the greater good to hold people accountable and all that, but you know to at least make a mark that like as part of society, you just can't do this. This is wrong.

[00:27:3847] Bob: But the case is not completely satisfying.

[00:27:420] William Johnson: Not really. I mean like I said, I think the case, I wish we could have gone farther, you know. I wish we had ways of getting; you know we got a lot of the, the criminals involved, don't get me wrong, but I wish we could have tooken a step further and go back and cross international borders to get the people who are probably getting the bulk of the money. Unfortunately, that's very difficult, if not impossible to go to international borders but it's something we're going to stay very vigilant in.

[00:28:016] Bob: And in fact, one of the defendants in the case, Kenneth Emeni, who Williams described as the lynchpin of their case, is actually doing things to help victims now. That's partly why his sentence is 1 year and 1 day, even though he initially faced up to 20 years.

[00:28:22:34] Katie Robison: I will say though that Mr. Emeni, he, you know, he has the largest loss amount, and he was, I would say at the head of the group here. He has provided, you know, really extraordinary cooperation. He sat down with our, besides just typical cooperations that defedefendantsnse provides in these cases, but he's also, he's talked to one of our victims who was in the process of being revictimized again by another fraud ring, so we set up a time where he could talk to her daughter to tell her things to look out for, and to try with the goal that her daughter could help her mom not to be revictimized.

[00:28:599:10] Bob: Wow.

[00:29:0011] Katie Robison: Yeah, he really has gone above and beyond. He's appeared with groups, local groups, a group of bankers to tell them things to look for, you know, when they see certain financial transactions that these transactions are indicative of fraud. I believe he's going to appear in one of our videos that we post on our website, the Elder Prevention Fraud Videos to say, I was one of these people, here's what to look for. So I, you know, I really commend him for doing good things with his life after his conviction.

[00:29:2940] Bob: I'm, I'm so glad you brought that up. That's a, that's a twist I wasn't expecting. So he's um, I mean I can't imagine what it's like to have him call people who are in the middle of, victims who are in the middle of a crime and say, "I used to do this." That must be really powerful.

[00:29:4355] Katie Robison: Yeah, that's, that's what we would think. Unfortunately, the victim herself did not want to talk to him, but I think the fact that her daughter did was very helpful, just to still, you know, give her daughter even more things to tell her mother, like no, this isn't right, you know. This is what you should look for and just be aware.

[00:30:0012] Bob: Katie and William are still hoping to recover more funds for victims and still hoping to find others behind the crime. But this story shows these kinds of crimes are worth prosecuting.

[00:30:1426] Bob: So this investigation in some sense is ongoing?

[00:30:1728] Katie Robison: Um, in some sense.

[00:30:1830] Bob: As far as you know, everyone that you pursued in the US has been indicted, right?

[00:30:2435] Katie Robison: Yeah, I guess I would say that. You know there's always other spinoff investigations, but right now other people are looking at the receiptslocated overseas.

[00:30:3243] Bob: And you're doing other things, I'm sure.

[00:30:3445] Katie Robison: Yeah.

[00:30:3546] Bob: But if there's a cell of operators at a local college nearby, that, that's a case worth pursuing, right?

[00:30:4152] Katie Robison: That, that's our, onlycertainly the attitude that our office has taken. And, you know, there's other people obviously involved that it is hard to pursue 'cause they're not located in the United States, but I at least think if you pursue the people that you can pursue, hopefully that makes an impact, because they people, once they get convicted or plead guilty, you know, they also have restitution obligations and need to pay the victims back which is something that's important, but also hopefully it deters other people from doing this in the future that they can see like oh, you know, these people were prosecuted, these people might have to go to jail. I don't want to do that, even if I can make some money off that, it's just not worth the risk. Like I don't want to be involved in this. And hopefully that puts a dent in these fraud schemes. It could be so frustrating to prosecute because, and I know a lot of law enforcement agencies don't, because you know, perpetrators aren't here, but there are people here that are involved, and I think their prosecution is important, and it is important to try to get restitution back, even if it's, you know, not successful for the government at first to keep at it.

[00:31:4859] Bob: Well I thank you so much for the work that you do, um and somehow or another, I can tell despite being a prosecutor, investigator, you're also very kind. So I hope you are able to hang onto that through your career, it's a tough career.

[00:32:0010] Katie Robison: Thank you, I appreciate that. That's very nice to hear.

[00:32:0213] Bob: What should people who are listening to this story learn from it, do you think?

[00:32:0617] Katie Robison: You know, just be careful online, and really if you have a relative, a parent, a friend, or someone that thinks that they met or started a relationship online, and I know that online dating is certainly a thing. I, even met my fiancé from an online dating website, but if it doesn't feel normal, if they're not meeting in person, if they can't even FaceTime with this person, you know, you should ask questions and be involved and try to educate them even though maybe your parent or friend really doesn't want to be educated so that they know that these frauds exist and that they're out there.

[00:32:4254] Bob: William also has strong feelings about what he wants people to know.

[00:32:478] William Johnson: And there's a really, one of the reasons, you know, I'm agreeing to do this, is I want to make the public aware of it. Be watching out, not only in your towns, but also in your family, notice if there's any changes. Unfortunately, these people target a population that's a little bit older but more trusting. I want people to be aware of what's going on in your family, to be aware of the older person in your family is all of a sudden spending a lot of time on the computer, on the internet, on social media talking to someone they don't know in real life. Also be aware if you are that person who is spending a lot of time and someone in your family approaches you, "Are you sure this person is real?" "Are you sure, why are you sending money to this person?" Listen to them. Like I said, these people are very gifted, are very talented. You've got to ask yourself is why no one ever wants to do a live video chat. One thing we learned in COVID, is everybody in the world can do video chats now. If a person keeps coming up with excuses as why they can't be, do a video chat, that should stand up a red flag. The other thing that should send up a red flag if the person is saying they live, you know, an hour away, ask how come they've not asked to meet in person. One big, two big things I want people to take away; if someone is asking you to send them money, and they're asking you to send money by gift cards, like you go purchase like at a convenience store or at a grocery store, or they use bitcoin, or another um, type oflike cryptocurrency, like that to make the transfer, that raises huge red flag, and they should be concerned, because they are asking the money be transferred in those ways is 'cause that money is almost, I don't want to say impossible, but there are ways for us to trace it. But it's very difficult for us to trace, and if a person has a legitimate need for the money, they don't need an eBay gift card, they don't need cryptocurrency, they need money. Now some of the transfers did happen with, you know, actual bank transfers, but those are red flags to look at.

[00:34:3957] Bob: And is there anything else that you might notice in family members, for example, even without looking at the bank account.

[00:34:455:03] William Johnson: Look at changes in behavior. Look if they start talking about Bob and nobody knows who Bob is or never met a Bob. You know, ask questions. Don't be afraid. You know, no one wants to ask those hard questions, especially after one of their parents died and the other parent, you know, what's going on here, but there's a lot of people who will target people like that. So you've got to pay attention to that. You know, simple changes in behavior, simple staying up all night to talk on the internet. Things of that nature pay attention to and ask why. You know, and some of them could be great. My dad died last year, Mom, my mother has reconnected with some of her friends from college and other relatives on Facebook, which I think is a great thing, I'm not here downing social media, but you've got to pay attention to it and make sure they're not making these new connections, personas that don't really exist.

[00:35:3452] Bob: In the end, the Huntington story is about a group of students who came from someplace overseas and used that situation for financial gain, either just to line their own pockets or in some cases to satisfy criminal gangs back home. and to satisfy their greed.

[00:35:4853] William Johnson: And they did. They made substantial amounts of money at it. It was, I mean it was easy money. Like I said, you know, I go to a bank account, I open it, I share my bank account information with people, and there's, I don't pay attention to the transfers, but I have a larger balance at the end of the month.

[00:36:0623] Bob: But I wonder if people listening to this from anywhere else in America might think, I'm, I'm really surprised something like this could happen in West Virginia. I wonder if you could just talk for another moment about you know why West--, why it could be anywhere in America this could happen.

[00:36:1936] William Johnson: Well, number one, this case did happen in other parts of America; it can happen anywhere. There are lonely people everywhere in this country, and there are people who are sociable who might not necessarily be lonely, it can happen anywhere with anyone. We actually had some younger victims who were part of this. It happensned. I still believe in the good of human nature, and when people ask for help, I think most people want to help them, and people like this, no matter if you live in West Virginia, California, Ohio, Indiana, anywhere it might be, people are good for the most part. And they're going to get preyed upon by these people, and because of the goodness in their heart, they're going to start sending them money, and unfortunately, they're going to lose a substantial portion of their savings.

[00:37:0320] Bob: Do you ever sit back and say, like wow, I can't believe all these people were doing this right here in Huntington, West Virginia.

[00:37:1026] William Johnson: Unfortunately, no, because there’s a lot of it that goes on. There's a lot of, and it's not just romance scams, there's a lot of internet scams, there's a lot of banking scams. That's been a pretty wide, eye-opening experience for me coming into this position of just how prevalent it was.

[00:37:2542] Bob: I want listeners to know that this could be happening in their town as well, that they're, and this is a thing to keep your eye out for.

[00:37:3148] William Johnson: My guess is it probably is.


[00:37:3956] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.



Huntington, West Virginia, is an idyllic college town on the Ohio River, but it’s also the epicenter of a massive international internet crime ring. Federal prosecutor Katie Robeson hasn’t been on the job long when she learns that a woman in Huntington is acting as money mule, transferring millions of dollars overseas. Following the money, Katie and her team uncover an elaborate network of criminals, based in Huntington, targeting people all over the country.

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