The Audiencia Nacional high court in Madrid. | Archives

The Audiencia Nacional high court in Madrid has found 105 Western Union agents guilty of involvement in a massive international fraud operation said to have had over 6,500 victims in eighteen countries across the globe. The court has also sentenced Western Union itself to pay compensation from a fund of 586 million dollars that was set up in the US in order to pay those affected by the fraud.

Individuals have been sentenced to between one and two years imprisonment for either fraud or money laundering. They also been fined a total of some seven million euros, albeit that the total amount defrauded was much higher; many victims have not made reports.

The case is that of the "Nigerian letters". As reported two weeks ago in the Bulletin, this related to online phishing and the use of false identities in promising victims lottery prizes and other payouts in return for payments in order to benefit from supposed fortunes.

The accused in Spain, most of them Nigerian, were agents authorised by Western Union Payment Service Ireland, which operates in Spain through locutorios. These establishments, 134 in all, were in various parts of Spain, including Majorca. The accused were being sent payments by victims in other countries. The money was then forwarded to the countries of origin of the criminal network behind the fraud; above all, Nigeria. Fake passports and the identities of other clients were used in making these transfers.

Based on reports made to police up to October 2014, the amount defrauded was 17.5 million euros between 2009 and 2012. The locutorios under investigation received 7.5 million euros and forwarded a total of over 47 million euros to Nigeria. The vast discrepancy between the figures, the court concluded, was due to the fact that so many victims didn't denounce what had occurred. This was either because they hadn't realised they had been defrauded or because they had been threatened by members of the criminal organisation.