You'd think with all the Nigerian 419 scams being publicized lately that people would stop falling prey to money-laundering schemes from African countries. But no.
Agents from United States ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the largest branch of the Department of Homeland Security, recently executed a search warrant against Yahoo by which it obtained all personal data for a user suspected of distributing counterfeit traveler's checks from Ghana, Google Watch has learned.
The search warrant was served on Jan. 25, and Yahoo complied by sending a CD with the affected user's information to ICE. The warrant requested all e-mails, histories, buddy lists, profiles, subscriber information, personal info including contact address and numbers, and detailed billing records and connection logs. Representatives from Yahoo were not immediately available for comment.
The application for the search warrant cites Title 18 of the United States Code, Chapter 21, which is titled "Stored Wired and Electronic Communications Access," a section of the law that was modified by the USA Patriot Act to allow the government to seize an ISP's records without notice to the affected subscribers or customers.
How to track an e-mail scam
While search and seizure of electronic data from ISPs may be routine procedure (at least since 9/11), the search warrant affidavit offers some interesting insights into how ICE uses e-mail records to pursue criminals.
According to the application for a warrant to search Yahoo, the story unfolded as follows:
In June 2006, a woman named Abbie Smith (names of U.S. citizens have been changed) responded to an e-mail titled JOB OFFER FOR YOU:
"Hello, Are you interested in a part time job?i have a job offer for you,check out my web site: www.henrysaunderstextilesandfabricscompany.org/EMPLOYMENT.htm"
Abbie replied to the e-mail and was contacted by someone known to Abbie as Henry Saunders with the e-mail address henrysaunders01.aim.com. (later he would communicate using the e-mail address email@example.com)
Abbie began receiving FedEx packages from Saunders, and her job was to remove the brown envelopes inside and mail them in new FedEx boxes throughout the United States. Abbie also received U.S. Postal Money Orders, and was told to complete the money orders with names and addresses provided by Saunders. Abbie received two packages total, and was paid $100 for the first and $300 for the second.
At this point ICE agents legally searched Abbie's apartment -- how they knew of Abbie's involvement isn't made clear -- and found 913 counterfeit American Express Travellers Cheques, 316 counterfeit U.S. Postal Money Orders and $300 in cash, all in three separate FedEx packages. The packages were addressed to Abbie and postmarked from Accra, Ghana.
Abbie told the agents that she didn't know the money was counterfeit. She apparently then agreed to continue working for Saunders under the supervision of ICE agents. When Abbie was next directed by Saunders to send a package to another Texas residence, ICE obtained a search warrant for that home. At that residence they found Bob Lake in receipt of Abbie's package, which contained six counterfeit travellers checks. While Bob had never heard of Henry Saunders, he had received an employment offer via e-mail from a man named Charles Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org) purportedly working for a company named Alfred Simmons Textiles.
Charles Jones wanted Bob to receive payments from his clients in the United States and Canada, cash the checks in their personal bank accounts, then deduct 10 percent as payment and forward the remainder to his associates. In this case, his associate was named Dina Robinson and lived in London.
In other words, Abbie was receiving counterfeit money from Ghana and sending it on to Bob, who would then deduct his portion and send the remainder to a third person. After establishing an international paper trail of transactions, the money would eventually get back to its originator (apparently in Ghana) where it would enter wider circulation.
Based upon these events and the Yahoo e-mail addresses, ICE applied for the search warrant against Yahoo.