Federal prosecutors are seeking a 24-year prison sentence for the ringleader of a group of Nigerian nationals who stole tens of thousands of identities — largely from Oregonians — and used them to file more than 10,000 fraudulent IRS returns.
Emmanuel Oluwatosin Kazeem, 35, will be sentenced June 20 in U.S. District Court in Eugene, concluding a multi-state, multi-agency investigation that began in April 2013 with a Medford couple reporting to the Internal Revenue Service that someone had fraudulently filed tax returns in their name.
Five co-conspirators have been sentenced to prison, including Kazeem’s younger brother, who testified against Kazeem last summer in a five-week trial in Medford.
A jury found Kazeem guilty of one count of conspiring to commit mail and wire fraud, five counts of mail fraud, four counts of wire fraud and nine counts of aggravated identity theft for his role in coordinating the ring, which attempted to file more than $91 million worth of fraudulent returns and made off with $11.6 million, which the co-conspirators loaded onto prepaid debit cards in roughly $9,000 increments.
Kazeem reportedly received the bulk of the money, which he used to support $280,000 worth of credit card purchases, buy real estate in Maryland, and attempt to build a hotel in Nigeria.
In 2014, Kazeem paid $790,000 for a newly constructed house in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
In November 2014, Kazeem was in negotiations to build a $6 million hotel on land he’d secured near Lagos, Nigeria.
“The hotel star classification I was looking at is 4 star,” according to an email he’d sent to the Wyndham Hotel Group.
In April 2015, a month before his arrest, Kazeem purchased a townhouse in Upper Marlboro for $175,000 cash, before deeding both properties the following May to his sister in Nigeria with $10 transactions.
Investigators found more than 124,500 stolen identities in Kazeem’s email and instant messaging accounts, according to a court document filed Wednesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. More than two thirds of those identities came from CICS Employment Services of Lincoln City, which had been breached by a Vietnamese hacker.
Kazeem purchased 91,732 of those identities from the hacker, who used the moniker “shipper_good_luck,” according to prosecutors. More than 39,000 identities in Kazeem’s email belonged to Oregon residents.
Kazeem’s emails show that he bargained for the stolen names, asking for samples and discounted prices, according to prosecutors. The identities came in 13 batches ranging from 100 to 30,000 names at a time.
For example, on Sept. 8, 2013, Kazeem reportedly messaged the hacker, “I really want to work a lot, got people for me now.” When the hacker provided him 10,000 names, Kazeem described the amount as “small for my boys,” and asked him for 32,000 more identities.
Kazeem divided the database identities and passed them along to co-defendants Lateef Aina Animawun, Oluwatobi Reuben Dehinbo, Oluwaseunara Temitope Osanyinbi, Oluwamuyiwa Abolad Olawoye and Michael Oluwasegun Kazeem. All have been sentenced after pleading guilty in 2017, although Osanyinbi has since filed an appeal from prison because a co-defendant got a shorter prison sentence.
Where information was incomplete, the co-conspirators would use disposable and fictitious email addresses to make requests with the IRS for tax transcripts. Because of security breaches tied to Kazeem’s ring, the IRS discontinued its “Get Transcript” program in 2015.
Kazeem also coached the ring members how to adjust the fraudulent tax returns so refunds would range between $8,267 and $9,943. If the refund was more than $10,000, the funds wouldn’t transfer to prepaid Green Dot Bank debit cards held by the Nigerian co-defendants and an American co-defendant, Curtis S. Pethley, now living in Madison, Wisconsin.
Pethley has pending mail fraud charges for allegedly purchasing and loading prepaid debit cards from a fraudulent refund issued in the name of the Medford couple who first reported the tax fraud.
At the direction of a Nigerian Pethley knew only as “queen_jenn,” Pethley allegedly purchased that card from a CVS pharmacy at South Barrington, Illinois, and registered the card in the Medford victims’ names. Pethley’s next court appearance is scheduled for July 30.