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Nigerian charged in US money order 419 scam

- Matt Stiles, Dallas Morning News

(Wednesday, December 29, 2004)

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"Federal indictment says he conspired to alter them to larger amount"

Joseph Emuagbonrie's explanation, as federal authorities describe it, seemed reasonable, even laudable. The Nigerian immigrant told an Irving post office employee in May that his unusual request for 70 American money orders each for less than $3 would help poor children learn to manage money.

In fact, authorities say, his effort was part of an international conspiracy to defraud the government by altering postal money orders to increase their values. A two-count indictment issued this month charges that Mr. Emuagbonrie conspired with unknown others here and in Africa to alter the money orders an increasingly sophisticated and common fraud across the country, U.S. postal inspectors say. "It's old wine in new bottles. It's the same old scams packaged in new ways," said U.S. Postal Inspector Kenny Smith, who declined to discuss Mr. Emuagbonrie's case but spoke generally about money order fraud.

Mr. Emuagbonrie is accused of buying low-value money orders at North Texas post offices this year. The orders were shipped overseas, according to the indictment, and other people changed them to raise the dollar amounts. Several of the orders, which are tracked by postal officials by serial numbers, later made their way back inside the country and were cashed for $1,000. Mr. Emuagbonrie, 28, remains in federal custody and couldn't be reached for comment. One of his attorneys, Ernest Izedonmwen, said his client "absolutely denies" buying or altering the questioned notes. "He is really adamant about it," he said. "He protests his innocence."

Federal prosecutors, as is their custom when criminal cases are pending in the courts, declined to comment. Mr. Emuagbonrie came under suspicion in September a month after local postal inspectors began trying to figure out who bought the orders from post offices in Irving and Euless and at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, court records show. A postal clerk in Irving told authorities she remembered that a man with a thick foreign accent, possibly African or Caribbean, bought 70 low-value money orders in May. Suspicious of the transaction, the woman asked why the man whom federal authorities say is Mr. Emuagbonrie wanted them. "He told her the money orders were to teach underprivileged children how to manage money," U.S. Postal Inspector Amanda McMurrey wrote, asking a federal judge in October for permission to search Mr. Emuagbonrie's mobile phone.

The warrant affidavit also states that 31 of the 70 money orders bought in Irving that day were later cashed for $1,000 apiece. Others turned up later when customs officials intercepted them. Months after the May transaction, the Irving postal clerk said she saw Mr. Emuagbonrie in the office again. Irving police were called, and Inspector McMurrey arrested him the same day, records show.

A grand jury indicted Mr. Emuagbonrie on Oct. 5 on a single charge: altering a postal money order. That charge remains, but a superseding indictment this month alleges that Mr. Emuagbonrie participated in a broader scheme. Unnamed people, the indictment states, altered the orders he obtained and returned them by Federal Express from the West African county of Ghana to the United States. Federal conspiracy indictments often list numerous defendants, and it's uncommon for prosecutors to seek the charge without naming others. To prove a conspiracy, prosecutors must show that at least two people agreed to a criminal plan and that one of them did something to further it.

Matt Yarbrough, a cyber crimes expert and former assistant U.S. attorney in Dallas, said the nature of the indictment could be simple strategy by federal prosecutor Mark Penley. "It is OK to put a conspiracy charge into an indictment if you do not know who the other person is," said Mr. Yarbrough, who heads the cyber law section at Fish & Richardson's Dallas office. Additional defendants could be named later, he said, as authorities gather the evidence needed to seek formal charges. That some people are probably outside the country, most likely in Africa, is another possible factor, he said. No trial date had been set. It could be months before Mr. Emuagbonrie faces a federal jury.

Such an altering scam, which inspectors call "raising," works because the people who change the denominations are getting more sophisticated and have better printers and scanners, said Inspector Smith, a spokesman for the services' Fort Worth division. The scammers, who also counterfeit the orders entirely, sometimes collect the money by using people they encounter on the Internet or in "lonely hearts club" chat rooms, he said. They persuade a person to cash the orders at banks where not all tellers recognize the telltale signs of fraud, such as discolorations, missing security watermarks and ink bleeds. "They are looking for people who are easily duped," he said, speaking generally and not about Mr. Emuagbonrie.

The problem has federal authorities so concerned that the inspection service sent out a bulletin this month, urging banks to try to spot bogus money orders. And the Postal Service Web site posts tens of thousands of money order serial numbers on its "do not cash" list. "This is not just in the North Texas area. We're seeing this across the country," Inspector Smith said.


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