Two men from Ghana who helped run an African identity theft and car resale scam from their homes in Ohio and New York were driven by a sense of familial duty, nationalism, and, of course, money.
There was also another, underlying motivation: “Sakawa,” a widespread religious practice in Ghana.
It uses traditional African rituals, including magic and sacrifice, to justify and encourage Internet-based fraud that targets foreigners.
Edmund Seshie and Abdul Rezak Shaib believed that if they didn’t carry out the scams, bad things might happen to them, similar to voodoo, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Conover. Sakawa has emerged in Ghana as a subculture that promotes a flashy and rich lifestyle of cars, clothing and status.
The alleged mastermind and manipulator charged in the scheme is Henry Addo, who is believed to be living in Ghana and is the main focus of the FBI’s investigation. A request for extradition has been filed but he remains at large.
“They were definitely being used by Mr. Addo,” Conover said of the defendants.
Seshie and Shaib were sentenced Thursday in San Diego federal court to probation for their roles in the scam. They were also ordered to each complete 80 hours of community service and pay a $500 fine.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw acknowledged the sentences were “very lenient” but decided to follow the prosecution’s recommendation partly due to the extensive cooperation the men provided in the investigation. Shaib even traveled to Ghana with FBI agents and the prosecutor in an attempt to locate Addo.
“This, as financial crimes go, is a very insidious one,” Sabraw said, noting the sense of violation identity-theft victims feel, and the chaos the crime creates as victims work to reclaim their identities.
“These were some significant acts of wrongdoing,” the judge said.
A probation officer had recommendation more than four years in prison.
According to the federal indictment, the scam worked like this:
In the U.S., Seshie — who is Addo’s cousin — and Shaib bought stolen credit cards from a Singapore-based “carder” website, then made fake driver’s licenses based on the victims’ personal information.
Addo then found cars for sale on Autotrader.com and other dealer websites, focusing mostly on used Toyota Camrys and Corollas, as well as Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedans. He is accused of calling the dealerships and buying the cars under the stolen identities.
The men arranged to have vehicle transportation companies send the cars to staging points around the country, including Ohio and New York, and then shipped to ports in New Jersey.
The cars were loaded into cargo containers and shipped to various international ports, including Port of Tema in Accra, Ghana — Addo’s hometown.
The exports occurred before victims became aware of the crimes.
The vehicles were then sold in Ghana.
The cars came from cities around the U.S., including a $15,000 2007 Acura RDX from West Palm Beach, Fla., an $18,000 2011 Corolla from Tucson, Ariz., and $40,000 C-Class from Silver Springs, M.D., according to the indictment. In all the men are accused of purchasing or trying to purchase at least 43 vehicles in 2011 and 2012.
An El Cajon Kia dealership found the $18,000 purchase of a 2009 Camry suspicious and called the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Undercover law enforcement agents discussed the Camry’s shipment with Addo in a recorded phone call. Agents, posing as employees of a transportation company, then took possession of the Camry.
Seshie and Shaib pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in 2014.
Shaib is a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Columbus, Ohio, and Seshie is a legal permanent resident in the Bronx, New York.