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The U.S. Secret Service (USSS) has charged eight Nigerian mob members with wire fraud, identity theft and money laundering of American citizens, the agency announced in a statement Wednesday.
The eight men, though all Nigerian-born, were based in South Africa and were members of a mafia syndicate known as the Black Axe. Seven of the men charged were high-ranking leaders in the group, while the eighth individual was charged as a conspirator.
Seven of the men charged were arrested in South Africa Tuesday by the South African Police Service (SAPS), where they await extradition to the United States to stand trial. A final suspect remains at large.
The wire fraud and money laundering charges each have a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and up to $750,000 in combined fines. Each identity theft charge has a mandatory sentence of two years.
The USSS led a large-scale investigation into the Black Axe members, assisted by the FBI, the U.S. State Department, and internationally by the SAPS and foreign intelligence services.
While the USSS is more widely known in popular culture for its protective services of government officials, the agency’s founding mission was to stop counterfeit currency, and today it undertakes a wide variety of investigations.
Since 2011, the mobsters had engaged in various forms of financial conspiracy with Americans over the internet. This included a variety of romance-based and advance-fee schemes.
Some of the victims had allegedly been coerced into believing they were in relationships with the perpetrators. The mobsters would then threaten to blackmail the victims by releasing explicit photos if they did not send them money.
Other schemes involved the mobsters telling people that they needed money for a friend who was traveling to South Africa and had gotten into trouble. Reportedly, it was often claimed that the friend had had an accident with a crane or construction equipment.
At times, the Black Axe members were even able to convince their victims to open entirely new American bank accounts for their own use, the USSS said.
“Transnational organized criminal networks continue to victimize U.S. citizens and threaten the financial infrastructure of the United States,” USSS official Jeremy Sheridan said. “The Secret Service, alongside our partner agencies, works tirelessly in its global investigative mission to dismantle these groups and arrest those who lead them.”
“Americans are too often victimized by criminal organizations located abroad that use the internet to deceive those victims, defraud them of money, and, many times, persuade their victims to wittingly or unwittingly assist in perpetuating the fraudulent schemes,” added acting U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig.
FBI officials also commented on their role in the investigation. “Foreign nationals who think they can hide in another country or in cyberspace while preying on our citizens need to know one thing,” said an FBI Special Agent in Charge. “The FBI has a global reach and will use every resource available to protect the American people.
Formed in the 1970s, the Black Axe syndicate has been called “one of the most notorious secret societies to ever come out of Nigeria” by the BBC, and has been labelled a cult in the past.
Additionally, the South African Sunday Times has said that the group had even managed to drive the Italian mafia out of territory in Italy, and was “associated with drug smuggling and human trafficking.”
Newsweek has reached out to the South African Police Service for comment.